Friday, August 21, 2009

Mysterious Cucubalus

Cucubalus baccifer in flower Detail from The Unicorn Is Killed and Brought to the Castle Cucubalus baccifer in fruit

Above, left to right: Berry-bearing catchfly (Cucubalus baccifer) flowering in a shady bed in Bonnefont Garden in July; a detail from the foreground of The Unicorn is Killed and Brought to the Castle showing the catchfly in flower and fruit behind the forelegs of a hunting dog; the shiny black fruits, which give the berry-bearing catchfly its name, ripening in August.

Berry-bearing catchfly (Cucubalus baccifer) is a pretty, lax-stemmed little plant that scrambles over and through the hellebores, ferns, and other shade-loving plants growing in a small bed under the east wall of Bonnefont Garden. We would be hard put to find a home for it anywhere else in Bonnefont, which is organized by use, since we haven’t been able to document either any medieval medicinal applications or any magical or symbolic attributes associated with it. Cucubalus has also been grown in Trie garden, which is home to a collection of plants native to the meadows, woodlands, and stream banks of Europe and is intended to evoke the verdant grounds of medieval millefleurs tapestries.

The plant is a Eurasian species with a wide distribution and belongs to the Caryophyllaceae (the Pink, or Carnation) family. In Wild Flowers of Britain (London: Pan Books, 1977), Roger Phillips characterizes the berry-bearing catchfly as an introduced perennial, often grown in gardens, which has naturalized in a few places in the southeast of England. (He also remarks that the berries are much loved by birds.) Outside the gardens of The Cloisters, I’ve never seen Cucubalus grown as a garden plant in the United States, and there is no report of the plant on the United States Department of Agriculture’s database of invasive and noxious weeds, where many other medieval species introduced from Europe can be found.

How has the mysterious cucubalus entered our medieval plant list and earned a place in our gardens? On the strength of its representation in the foreground of the sixth of the Unicorn Tapestries, The Unicorn is Killed and Brought to the Castle. Berry-bearing catchfly was identified in “The Flora of the Unicorn Tapestries,” by Carol H. Alexander and E. J. Woodward, which first appeared in the Journal of the New York Botanical Garden (May–June 1941) and was reprinted as a pamphlet in 1941, 1944, and 1965. The study includes drawings with keys to the trees, herbs, and flowers of each of the seven tapestries, and was reprinted as an appendix in a more recent Museum publication by Adolfo S. Cavallo (The Unicorn Tapestries, 1998.) The tapestries are so faithful to nature and so botanically detailed that Alexander and Woodward were able to identify more than eighty of the one hundred plants represented, including Cucubalus baccifer, with its distinctive white flowers and shining black fruits.

Some of the plants identified by Alexander and Woodward appear in multiple Unicorn tapestries; a number of these—such as violets, strawberries, and daisies—are stock plants that frequently appear in the grounds of other medieval millefleurs tapestries as well. Other plants, like the Cucubalus, appear only once in the series and may even be unique to The Unicorn Tapestries, such as the early purple orchid prominently placed against the unicorn’s body in the seventh hanging, The Unicorn in Captivity. While the orchid is a plant of ancient medicinal and magical reputation and can be interpreted as having a special significance in the context of the tapestry, we do not yet know the significance of the berry-bearing catchfly, which doesn’t appear in any of the authoritative sources about the folklore, symbolism, or use of medieval species.

I have come across a few scientific studies on the medicinal properties of Cucubalus, but these seem to be based on its reputation as a folk remedy in China. Does anyone know any European use or significance for this intriguing plant?

—Deirdre Larkin

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