The Empress and her Lily
This time every year I watch and wait for the first stirrings from my Brunsvigia josephinae. Since dropping their shriveled leaves in late spring they have lain doggo over the heat of summer waiting for the first signs of autumn. These African veldt dwellers have very large bulbs lying at ground level and when dormant resemble a clutch of fossilized dinosaur eggs. A recent visitor had a more prosaic, if not decidedly local take on my plantings, declaring them a strong likeness to an ancient burial ground for old Aussie Rules footballs. Mind you I think he is right about burials. It took a crowbar, an axe and a shovel to prise out my very first bulb from my grandfather's garden.
When those limpid days of early autumn arrive, as if on cue, life begins to stir within the depths of those massive, dry, papery mounds. Within a trice a decidedly phallic-like, golden stem erupts from out of the great fleshy barrel of a bulb. Both stem and flower bud continue to extend and as the stem reaches its maximum height the bud breaks open and the individual pedicle of each floret begin to lengthen and open out like the spokes of an umbrella. These floret buds begin to swell, turning from light green to pink, and when their pedicles have reached their maximum length and turn upwards, they bursts forth into a gloriously surreal candelabrum of lipstick-red single flower heads.
My grandmother told me that when she was a girl the flower heads of brunsvigias were cut and brought inside the house to be used as fly traps. Apparently the sticky surface of the flower's stigma, which is there to capture pollen, was equally effective at catching flies. It certainly gives an interesting twist to the saying, "came to a sticky end", although I prefer the less well known adage, "drowning in honey". A thoroughly more pleasant use was to paint the dried flower heads gold and hang them from the ceiling as decorations on festive occasions. Maybe that's one of the reasons why brunsvigias are called Candelabra Lilies? In fact, they are known by a number of common names, including Umbrella Lily, Chandelier Lily, and in Africaans, by the rather ubiquitous, Maartblom, or March Flower.
Brunsvigia josephinae, has an intriguing story surrounding its name. It was given in honour of the Empress Josephine de Beauharnais, Napoleon's consort, and the species is still commonly referred to as Josephine's Lily. During her lifetime the Empress developed a perchance, some would say an obsession, for the rare and exotic, not for jewelry or other fineries, but for plants and animals. Her passion was brought to its apogee in the gardens of the Chateau de Malmaison, a rundown old estate on the outskirts of Paris that she had bought against her husband's wishes. Napoleon was once reported to have said that the one thing that came between him and his wife was her extraordinary ability to run up debts.
At the height of her days there Josephine had amassed the largest and most important collection of roses in Europe and was importing rare plants from the far corners of the world. Even the Napoleonic Wars could not curtail her enthusiasms and it is said that none other than Sir Joseph Banks arranged for the safe passage of plants from Kew Gardens through the British naval blockade. Over 200 species grown at Malmaison were the only plantings in France at that time, and among them was, Brunsvigia josephinae, which bloomed there for the very first time in Europe in 1805. The record of this event can be seen in the painting by the French botanical artist, Pierre Joseph Redouté, who had been commissioned by the Empress to produce the studies for the work on monocotyledons growing at Malmaison, called, Les liliacées. This was one of a number of monumental works that she underwrote involving 486 paintings and 18 engravers over 14 years to complete.
And what should we make of the Empress Josephine? Was she a privileged and spoilt woman who squandered vast sums of her citizenry's money just to indulge her obsession? After her divorce from Napoleon she remained at Malmaison until her death and received an annual stipend of 5 million francs. Or was she a visionary and generous benefactor of the Gardening Arts? She left behind a rich palette from which rose breeders still draw upon today, as well as glorious legacy of botanical art that not only informs history but also stands alone as a priceless creative achievement. It is difficult to pass such judgments on historical figures for they are all creatures of their time. But personally I find that I am hopelessly drawn towards such magnificent acts of folly, not only for their sheer improbability but for their unswerving single-mindedness and for the glorious arc of their vision.
Recently I have taken to calling my largest and oldest brusvigia bulb, the Empress Josephine, and I talk to her often about her health and her beauty . . . and her breeding . . . for she certainly has the bearing and the presence of one so named. And as I write these words, she's out in the garden holding court, and carrying her magnificent candelabrum like a regal crown of flames.