Plants, Sexual Symbolism of

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Plants, Sexual Symbolism of

There are no universals in symbolism—although their ordering of the world is a comforting temptation. Symbols—and the place of plants in the grammar of symbols is no exception—travel across time periods and continents, yet their visual resemblance is deceiving and their meaning can vary significantly. The fleur-de-lis, for instance, is found in various ancient cultures and in Egypt was the emblem of the southern provinces, where it symbolized fertility and wealth. It later became a Christological symbol, and then an emblem of purity and virginity applied to the Virgin Mary from a verse of the Song of Songs (2:2) before being associated with the French monarchy (Pastoureau 1997, pp. 115-116).

The apple also occupies shifting ground: Linked in the story of Genesis to the Fall, it became associated in the Christian imaginary with women and sin, reflected in modern folk expressions such as the Breton term for a pregnant woman—that "she had eaten the apple." In classical myth the golden apple that Paris of Troy bestows on Aphrodite, as well as the three golden apples thrown at Atalanta by Hippomenes to defeat her in the race (Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book X, 291-295), are connected to wooing and erotic power. This also seems to be their function in Celtic myth, but here, it is the otherworldly woman/goddess who appears to entice a human man, bearing a branch from the silver apple tree of Emhnae or, like Clíodna, accompanied by birds who feast on the apples of the otherworld tree (Mac Cana 1973, p. 91). General statements about the connection of plants to fertility, birth, and regeneration (Cirlot 1958, p. 348), or worse yet, stale clichés about female flowers and male sexual aggression (Stevens 1999, pp. 380-81), are thus not very helpful in understanding the sexual symbolism of plants.

Symbols are powerful in part because they translate or even erase the predictable. Thus, historian Simon Schama pointed out how a classically trained renaissance art historian of the end of the nineteenth century Aby Warburg (1866–1929) came to shed the rationalist belief that symbols merely "… protected prescientific man from his fear of the inexplicable." Deeply troubled by the images he studied, Warburg "… began to lose this conventional confidence that knowledge could supersede symbol as a way of dealing with terror" (Schama 1995, p. 211). If terror is linked to symbols, then, the sexual symbolism of plants cannot be limited to the representation of fe/male binaries or of sexual acts, but signals designated access routes to the sacred. Such is the function of the cut pine in the cult of Atys, who becomes mad and self-castrating (Schama 1995), and of plants linked to dark magic. In ancient pre-Christian or non-Christian fertility and love cults, the pine is thus dedicated to or representative of a god/goddess or associated with life through fecundity in objects and emblems, such as the pinecone, whose sexual symbolism remains active in medieval lore linked to taverns and bathhouses (Canadé Sautman 1995).

Trees, shrubs, flowers, fruits, vegetables, herbs, ornamentals, and even noxious specimens have been culturally meaningful, foremost through the imperatives of food production and medical treatment, and thus, the practices—dietary and/or magical—that they have fostered. Their symbolic translation of sex and gender is readable in actual medical, or magicomedical, usage, contained in the materia medica and pharmacopeia of specific cultures and periods, which provide explanations or associative chains for the role of specific plants in sexuality. In medieval cultures plants became symbolic because of positive or negative physical effects on any aspect of erotic/sexual life (abstinence, passion, procreation, delivery of children) or because authoritative tradition claimed them to be so (Canadé Sautman 1995). Sexual symbolism could stem from a feature of the plant itself: Thus, with their prolific seeds, pumpkins (cucurbite in Latin), in order to grow, must be protected against women who should not touch them or even look at them while menstruating (Tacuinum sanitatis 1984). The seed, used to treat the prostate gland, coded as male (Telesko 2001) is thus vulnerable to the contamination of women and especially menses, a longstanding belief acknowledged at least since Pliny (23–79 ce) (Canadé Sautman 1995).

In sexual regulation the function of plant parts can vary immensely: thus, the rue, an astringent herb, was known since Galen (129–200 c.e.) to suppress sexual desire (Tacuinum Sanitatis 1984). Recommended as such by St. Albert the Great (c. 1206–1280), it was thought to preserve chastity, all the way through the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (Tacuinum Sanitatis 2001). However, in the sixteenth-century Arabic Perfumed Garden, the seed of the wild rue is one of the ingredients in a drug to induce in women an irrepressible desire for lesbian passion (Taberner 1985). A derivative symbolic language of plants also stems from regimens of health that regulate what one eats to various ends beyond mere sustenance. Plants thus signify sexually regardless of their actual physical effects; for instance the eggplant was deemed a melancholy-inducing plant, and "virgins and married women" were warned to be on guard when picking it because the plant's melancholic odors combined with its hot and moist nature could arouse males to deviate from "decent behavior" (Tacuinum sanitatis 1984).

Preceding the sentimental language of flowers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, largely codified in the 1910s in the fashion of exchanging postcards, the custom of offering May bouquets that signified attraction and love was known in medieval Europe. Such bouquets could also codify sexual insults from males to young women through the incorporation of certain plants—such as hazel or elder trees—and led to confrontations (Canadé Sautman 1995).

Plants can symbolize—because of a mix of potentially toxic effects and inclusion in magical practices—particularly forbidden love magic. Toxicity is precisely what allows these plants to break psychic and physical barriers or conjure hidden forces. An example is the plant hyoscyamus niger, known as henbane in English, used in witches' brews and, like the mandrake and belladonna, present in alchemical symbolism and ancient medicine. Its active ingredients, which include aggressive alkaloids, penetrate through the skin and mucous membranes such as the vagina and induce violent sexual excitement, as well as lead to madness and divinatory trance (Sangirardi 1981). Another, favored as a sexual restorative and aphrodisiac from the Antiquity to the modern era in different guises, is the Artemisia group, including wormwood or mugwort (artemisia vulgaris), an effective if dangerous anthelmintic (worm expellant) due to the active compound santonin, which can induce epilepsy, respiratory failure, and even death (Taberner 1985).

Plants are also symbols in the representation of sexuality because of linguistic details or legendary narratives that have accrued to them. Plants in the large Orchidaceae family acquired the Latin term testiculos because of the double tuber at their root. According to Pliny, the orchis or serapion has a major tubercle that excites desire and a minor one that inhibits it. The older and larger tubercle, eaten by men, engenders boys; the smaller and younger one, when eaten by women, engenders girls. Thessalian women were reputed to eat its root with goat's milk to stimulate sexual appetite and to eat the old tubercle to inhibit it. These associations of shape and property with a gendered order of nature and procreation were repeated in later herbals, such as the English Herbal of John Gerarde published in 1636, which recommends the generative powers of the plant "testiculos leporis" (Sangirardi 1981), whose name is doubly symbolic, as the hare, lepus, is reputed to have volatile sexual urges. The ancient doctrine of signatures—every plant is marked by God to reveal its specific use—categorized many plants as sexual enhancers because of their shape, such as the asparagus. Even more so, plants whose roots resembled an entire human form, such as the mandrake, were widely recommended for use in love magic (Taberner 1985). This largely mythical plant, essential to magic and sorcery, could be different plants in its actual botanical epiphany: ginseng, or man-root for the Chinese; the thorn-apple (datura stramonium), a Solanaceae, in early European and Arabic writing; and in medieval to early modern English and French herbals, the white bryony (bryonia dioica Jacquin,) a wild cucumber that is quite poisonous. The magic of "like produces like," inherent to the sexual symbolism of plants, is probably at work in the custom decried by a fourteenth-century Dominican friar of young girls invoking the plantain (plantago major) to be married to the man of their choice (Savoie 1933). Besides the power traditionally ascribed to it, the plant does have long, pointed, tubular pistils. The parallel persists in the modern world; the root of St. John's Wort (hypericum elodes), popular in the twenty-first century as a mood enhancer, is said to have been used in the twentieth century as a love charm in the southern United States because of its phallic shape (Taberner 1985).

Incarnations of the fecund Gaia and Artemis led to a Marial iconography with Mary in the center of a paradise garden surrounded by flowers, fruit, and leafy trees (Schama 1995). Plants can be at the crossroads of religious (monotheistic) symbolism and of sexuality, where ambiguous zones of carnal and devotional love interface. This is particularly true in Marial devotion. For instance, in the commentary on Catholic flower and fruit garlands painted around the Madonna, the fig, a symbol of luxury in antiquity, becomes a fruit of the Virgin (Goody 1993). The iris is also ambivalent in medieval symbolism: It was at once associated with generation and with the incarnation of Christ and virgin maternity (Girault 1997). The lily is an ancient fertility symbol, but the white lily, lilium candidum, also signifies purity and unblemished beauty and refers to Mary as the vessel in which the seed of God is brought into full bloom. The lily is thus at once Mary's purity and Christ's glory (Tacuinum Sanitatis 2001).

Similarly, the sour pomegranate, granata acetosa, was linked to fertility, blood, and immortality in antiquity and changed in Christianity to signify the death of Christ and his resurrection and the life-giving virtue of the Virgin Mary and Redemption (Tacuinum Sanitatis 2001). The retable of the Dominican church of Colmar painted by Martin Schongauer (1430–1490) places in its central scene Christ and Mary Magdalene under a flowering pomegranate tree that bears ripe fruit, surrounded by a wooden fence. This is the Hortus Conclusus of the Song of Songs, in which Christ is the beloved, and Mary Magdalene the sponsa (betrothed), reconciling the apparently contradictory images of carnal sin and chastity, in "the personalized crucible of mystical faith" (Kessler 1997). The image of an enclosure around a flowering and fruit-bearing pomegranate tree is one of betrothal in courtly literature, invested with new meaning by theology, for the pomegranate is fundamental to the Christian system of vegetal symbolism because of its natural structure, which designates martyrdom (Kessler 1997).

The double meaning of fruits—overtly sexual or Christianized to signify sin and resurrection—is evident in the work of a Renaissance artist such as Hieronymus Bosch (c. 1450–1516), who places oversized, round, and yellow or red fruits with seeds, partially cut open, in symbolic positions—for instance, in his Hay wain (Madrid, Prado), over the portal of Paradise that Adam and Eve just left. He also transforms familiar berries in the painting of the Garden of Earthly Delights (Madrid, Prado), adding blue strawberries or giant raspberries, or combinations, "… to obtain the 'synthetic fruits' he needed to surcharge the symbolic equation between the flesh (of the sinner) and fruits that are made of flesh only, without a hard pit, which will constitute and symbolize at once the food and the putrefaction of the carnal sin" (Kessler 1997, p. 177-178).

Plants, trees, and, in particular, flowers, are sexually symbolic as vegetal matter, regardless of their actual species, because of their shape or growing habit. There are thus general categories of worship (protection of fertility) or spaces of symbolic transfer (shrines, bowers, woods) where human and vegetal figures are connected to love and sex. This process is particularly evident in the medieval French romance of Flore and Blanchefleur. The two youths become enraptured with each other, listening to birds and admiring nature in Flore's father's garden, filled with flowers and herbs of all types, including the mandrake (Flore et Blanchefleur, 14, vss. 241-44). In Flore's heart, Love then plants its strong stem, perpetually in bloom and more fragrant than exotic plants such as citrons, clove, or garingal (22, vss. 373-78). A sumptuous tomb is built for the two lovers, with their semblance carved on top of it, kneeling in front of each other, she holding a rose of fine gold, he proffering a beautiful lily (vss. 574-76). Trees are planted at its four corners. At the head, a small, leafy ebony, covered with white flowers all year long, that can never be burned by fire; at the foot a red terebinth, more beautiful than the rose; on the right a mythical tree that produces the oil of baptism; and on the left a balm tree. No fragrance in the world equals theirs, and they were planted with invocations to all the gods that made them always bear abundant flowers (34-36, vss. 603-642). In contrast, the tree in the emir's garden is linked to predatory sex: His completely red tree of love is not natural but has been rigged to always have flowers and drop one on the woman the emir has chosen to be his for a year, before he puts her to death (vss. 104-107).

Whereas the examples discussed so far have been almost all European, there is no dearth of symbolic associations between plants, gender, and sexuality in other cultural regions of the world. Thus, flowers appear early in Chinese literature in relation to courtship and marriage, where the beloved is compared to a plum or peach blossom, to slender bamboo, to the pepper plant or lotuses, as early as the Book of Odes, c. 800 bce (Goody 1993). Beginning with the poet Li Po (701–762), "flower poetry" depicted the world of the courtesans and singing girls as "beautiful flowers," and flowers, natural and human, interplayed in a genre both popular and literary (Goody 1993). A strong element of eroticism is built into the very depiction of flowers, as a range of terms in written characters describing beauty have a female radical and are applicable only to women, flowers, and fruit. Thus, in the euphemistic language of lovemaking, the feminine is the plum blossom and the masculine is the bamboo. Women painters of flowers, some of them courtesans themselves, furthered the association by reproducing the systematic—and conventional—girl-and-flower equations. Courtesan painters particularly favored the orchid as subject matter, as in the "rock and orchid" composition, because it was a metaphor for a lovely girl living in seclusion (Goody 1993).

Orchid, sexual status, and women were linked in legend and literature when the seventeenth-century author of the Mustard Seed Garden recounts that, after the princesses of Xiang were given away as concubines by their father, the orchid fields "reflected a blush of shame and yet continue to bring forth no ordinary flower …" Specific flowers elicited a literature of their own, for instance the twelfth-century plum poetry, in which the blossom of the flowering plum is likened to lovely chaste women. The peony, on the other hand, even in contemporary contexts, stands for both wealth and sensuality, whereas the begonia was feminine because it likes a cool shady spot, and the iris was linked to fertility and the birth of sons, as was the red pomegranate, which also was expected to ward off bad luck (Goody 1993).

Notwithstanding these refinements, however, the general category of flowers in Chinese culture went beyond referring to women and female beauty in general to a very precise usage linked to prostitution, evidenced in the language of the sex trade, with terms such as "looking for the flowers and asking after the willows," "flower smoke rooms," or going to "drink flower wine" (Goody 1993). Traditional Chinese brush painting has, on the other hand, elegantly codified the auspicious symbolism, not only of single flowers and plants, but of compositions: bamboo with plums signify marriage; peony and bee, lovers; two lotus blooms or one bloom and one leaf indicate shared love; a willow with a female golden oriole and a male butterfly evoke love; and plants otherwise incorporated in erotic language, when grouped in threes, can signify the Three Purities, as do plum, pine, and Buddha's hand citron (Cherrett 2003).

The elaborate ancient and early modern systems—medical, magical, erotic, and religious—that governed the symbolic value of plants in art or in literature have receded, at least in the Europe and North America, in the modern period, where they obey different syntaxes, idiosyncratic to a specific author or artist. Thus Marcel Proust (1871–1922) uses the hermaphroditic orchidaceae cattleya to evoke Swann's passion and to signify making love, and constantly regenerating desire (Fladenmuller 1993). Some plants, however, have a culturally symbolic range, combining popular tradition with literary craft. The sugar cane and the cane-brake itself have acquired complex meanings in Caribbean and African American literature, interfacing erotic allusions and situations with a broader reference to the tensions and struggles of plantation cultures, a trend evident in works as varied as Jean Toomer's unique and foundational Cane (1923), in Gloria Naylor's The Women of Brewster Place (1982), or in Lemuel Johnson's poem "sudden ecstasies in lefthanded places" (Johnson 1992). Modern artists have also openly sexualized flowers and fruit, their individual eye conferring sexual ambiguity to them, as in Georgia O'Keefe's (1887–1986) 1927 painting Red Cannas, read by some through her bisexuality, or photographer Edward Weston's (1886–1958) 1929–1930 renditions of peppers (Appel 1992). Finally, many modern vernaculars retain the sexual associations of plants, as in the Italian finocchio (fennel) for homosexual, the English use of cherry for the virginity of girls, or the French gousse (garlic clove) for lesbian.

see also Erotic Art; Folk Beliefs and Rituals; Folk Healers and Healing; Folklore; Legends and Myths; Magic; Medicine, Ancient.


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                              Francesca Canadé Sautman