Tag Archives: flowers

The Venus Flytrap: The Scent of Hibiscus

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Hibiscadelphus wilderianus grew on the slopes of Maui up until a century ago, before it was declared extinct. Now, a biotechnology company, Ginkgo Bioworks, claims to have resurrected the flower’s scent through genetic reconstruction. They recently debuted a perfume, which they described as piney and earthy.

But in truth, most hibiscus flowers have no fragrance. If at all, it’s just a wisp of one, possibly partly imagined, and we know it more from clear reddish teas and blended into herbs and chemicals in haircare than from the plant itself. That redolence, light as it is, is not in the blossom. The blood-bright ones placed at Kali’s feet are silent in the realm of scent.

So what is the fragrance that these biotechnologists have developed? How much of it is the power of suggestion, what the words “Hawaiian mountain hibiscus” conjure? When they tell us their new perfume line will return to us something lost, do we believe them?

I was on a video call with a faraway friend the other night as she dressed for a date, and when she sprayed perfume on herself, I was sure I could smell it. “Is it citrusy?” I asked. It was. It was not a signature scent; I cannot explain how the fragrance burst around me at the sound of the spritz. One night more than a decade ago, I was weeping in bed missing my recently deceased grandmother when the scent of paan filled the room. She had loved chewing areca nuts and betel leaf, and the smell of this was something I associated with her. Someone will tell me I was hallucinating, someone else will tell me my heart imploded into aroma. You can guess who among those someones I would call kindred.

Our olfactory sense is as emotional as our tactile sense. We think it’s the one we can live without, the one we’d give up if we had to choose one, but we’d lose more than just reactions of pleasure or disgust. We’d also lose one of the keys to our inner selves, influencing both our ability to reach into our memories and to express the way they make us feel. Sometimes the past circles back to us unseen.

The Hawaiian mountain hibiscus was known to botanists based on a single sample, dated to 1910, with it being presumed extinct only a couple of years later. Perhaps those early botanists used the word “discovery” in some description of their encounter and study of it, but if so, it would only have been in the way the Americas or certain spices were “discovered”. It it was endemic to Maui long before this. Centuries of people held its petals in their palms. Millennia of creature paws scampered by its bushes, or dipped proboscises into the nectar at its heart. The flower had other names, possibly held a place in ritual or courtship or adornment. Those who claim to have revived its scent have still not told us what its colour was. What its secrets were. They aren’t poets, after all. Yet they speak its songlike name, and look how we respond – how we rise, or implode.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on January 31st 2019. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: The Forest Of The City

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Sometimes I think of what that learned one told me as I move through the city’s avenues, sound-sieged and sun-bleached but for intervallic canopies of leaves. “Vana is ‘city’ too,” he told me, a woman with a forest in plain sight in her name. Vanadurga is She of the City then, another kind of wilderness. Etymologies rearrange things. I think of urban briar and bramble, some danger always underfoot. The frightening things gridlocked into the city’s rhythms the way traffic engorges its roads. It makes sense: Vanadurga’s temples are supposed to be open to the air. No sunshade, no crown of verdure. It is the primeval forest goddess, Aranyani, who has no temples at all, who resides deeper within and without human consciousness. She is remembered only by the beauty of ancient words made to praise her.

Sometimes potted plants are too obvious a metaphor for things that grow – or try to – wherever they are given, in containments disconnected from the bounty of the earth. Other times I wake unto my gallery of green and am grateful for their tenacity, their thirst, their sheer splendour. The way bougainvillea the colour of sweet mango flesh arcs beyond the trellis, flagrantly flirtatious. The way water poured on parched soil brings forth the smell we wrongly identify as rain, for petrichor is only the scent of mud being made.

On the street, besides the stump of a tree we lost in the last cyclone, a vivid frond announces an uprising. Life goes on – “grows on”, someone said. There’s something immutable about this fact, despite the other one: everything changes.

Aranyani walking through cities, through what has become of the landscapes of her dominion. Redolent of bark and blossom, the tinkling of her anklets lost amidst the noises of this feral place.

If only the summer could still do to me what I see it do to the pods and buds on these trees. I borrowed the line from Pablo Neruda, and that’s why I reject its original preposition. I cannot type his “do with” without remembering what he did to the Ceylonese woman he employed while a consul on the island. Reader, he raped her. Don’t tell me you can know that and still be softly stirred by “I want to do with you what the spring does with the cherry trees”. Yet, why then did I forget, for awhile, what Derek Walcott too had done as every timeline filled up last week, in eulogy, with his exhortation to the rejected lover to feast on their life?

No, the summer is probably doing with me everything it always has: season of quenching, of moisture, of the quotidian pleasure of undressing. Season when the skin sings. I can’t see the brazen bougainvillea bursting over my balcony from behind my French windows. Am I like that too, in blossom but unaware? Disentangling the wrong etymologies. Seeing cities of trees and forests of conurbations while seeking some other kind of proof. I’d like to flourish again as if it was the first time, as if I need not be grateful, as if I did not know too well that seasons turn.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on March 23rd 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: The Flower Power Party Guide

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Everybody knows that spouses come to resemble each other, and if you’ve ever been bored on the Internet you’ve probably also seen that animals and the people who keep them share some similarities (or perhaps just a hairdresser). One expert usefully asserted that you could spot a hound owner from a mile away because they “look very doggy”.

But for company that neither vocalizes nor poops, you can’t go wrong with plants – and I have a feeling there’s a kind of foliage just for you. Recently, nodding obsequiously through a particularly boring conversation, I spaced out and thought of how the whiskers this woman was sprouting, elegant and sporadic as they were, were not unlike the bristles of a black bat flower.

Rewarded with a great solo party trick after years of deep poetic thoughts about trees and flowers, I suddenly enjoyed looking around the room. There were the clusters of weeds, the sycophants, all different variants: pretty and harmless dandelions, downright irksome poison ivy, and the honestly rather useful St. John’s wort and cannabis. The last one might have been more than a metaphorical sighting. Not that I could tell.

And that one over there – she surely grows bonsai; her soul itself seems corseted in a trellis. A little sad, a little less interesting than the bougainvillea and the pepper vines snaking their papery petals and heart-shaped leaves along the lengths of supportive spines. Not quite sycophants, those, just Sitas.

Hello, night-blooming cereus – why are you never as fun during the day? And over there’s a teetotaler, but you can’t be condescending to a Rose of Jericho, not when his sense of humour is even drier than his drought.

The cacti are actually a lot of fun: they’re a little prickly at first, but they really know how to hold their liquids. Anyone who vomits qualifies as a corpse flower, but only if they’re within smelling distance (otherwise, they may just be a different sort of plant entirely: the factory kind). Speaking of which – it’s also much easier to ignore the inebriated idiot taking off his shirt if you think of him as a deciduous tree.

Thankfully, though, there are other kinds: the banyan around whom the party inevitably congregates, the resilient olives (sometimes symbolically holding martinis) and maybe an ancient bristlecone pine or sequoia, still living it up and sharing everything they’ve seen along the way.

Including perhaps – through we’ll try not to stare – the cute little hothouse flower accidentally flashing her Georgia O’Keefe. A blush of shy mimosa pudicae, meanwhile, curl up and hide for shame.

I don’t know about you, but I always start the evening off as a narcissus. Vanity trumps misanthropy every time. Before the bloom wears off the rose, though, I’m preening with the lot of them. Sometimes I even get mistaken for celebrity flora, the kind mentioned in holy texts for example: sagacious bodhi trees and Lebanon cedars. I’m able to hang around only so long as they don’t realize that my own superstar qualities are fictional, and then I’m booted out along with the Faraway Tree and the Two Trees of Valinor.

And then there I’ll be, sulking and swilling something in the corner (and you know what my ultimate totem plant would have to be): trap-shut, thorny, digesting my findings.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.