Of maggot extractors and the graceful Calpurnia - Businesslive

Sep 26, 2021
27 September 2021 - Every now and then a small thing casts light on something altogether larger, and arguably grander.

Michael Morris 
Every now and then a small thing casts light on something altogether larger, and arguably grander.

“Grander” may be an awkward word here, as I am thinking at once of “heritage” (certainly grand in scale) and, perhaps less grand (though delightfully described as having “a graceful habit”), a small evergreen tree common to the eastern and northern parts of SA, and northwards into tropical Africa as far as Ethiopia, and in southern India.

My own young Calpurnia aurea, flourishing in the Western Cape, testifies to the species’ adaptability (and, no doubt, the human whim to test the limits of geography).

Botany is not strictly my subject here. Rather, in the light of Heritage Day, it is how our knowledge of this lissom tree reflects the long reach of history — and with it the intelligence, inventiveness, humour, ruthlessness, vulnerability and amnesia of the people who have made it. It is, in its modest way, a token of a shared heritage.

If you’re as dotty about trees as I am (one of my pastimes is growing indigenous species from seed) you will cherish the work of the SA National Biodiversity Institute (Sanbi) and its PlantZAfrica.com website.

Here we can delve beyond the Calpurnia’s simplest description — “decorative foliage, showy yellow flowers and a graceful habit” — and gain some appreciation of its long relationship with people, best captured in how it is variously named.

Beyond its botanical name, Sanbi provides a choice of 14 others: common calpurnia; calpurnia; wild laburnum; Natal laburnum; Cape laburnum; geelkeurboom; geelkeur; Natalse geelkeur; inDloli; umSitshana; umKhiphampethu; inSiphane-enkulu; umHlahlambedu; and umLalandlovana

The Zulu name umkhiphampethu — “maggot-extractor” — alerts us to calpurnia’s medicinal uses: the leaves and powdered roots “are used to destroy lice and to relieve itches, and unspecified parts are used to destroy maggots, and the leaves are used to treat allergic rashes, particularly those caused by caterpillars”.

Poetic wit accompanies the botanical name. The plant was first described in 1789, from a tree in the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew said to have been introduced from Ethiopia in 1777. German botanist Ernst Meyer is credited with distinguishing it from the genus Virgilia, named after the Roman poet Virgil. As fellow poet Calpurnius was thought to be an imitator of Virgil, it was considered “poetically just” to rename the species Calpurnia.

Here is evidence, no doubt, of the reach of particular kinds of knowledge — persuasive for the power behind it — but also of what might have been lost. In an older terrain, were there other, now forgotten, names? It would be wonderful to read of young South African linguists working to fill out the record.

For all its lightness of presence, my young Calpurnia is assuredly freighted by history. I always get nervous when my wife casts a querying eye over my potted saplings in case, before they are established enough to give away and lead their own lives elsewhere, she thinks of a better use for this colonised region of the back garden.

More worrying, though, is the enthusiasm for the moral simplicity that calls for selectively disowning, rather than embracing and expanding on, one or another of the great investments of human energy of the past — flawed as some may have been — which cannot now be unspent.

The sum does seem to challenge us to acknowledge that, being as capable, curious and inventive as our predecessors, we can celebrate history’s bequest with all its flaws and foibles since these ultimately make us indivisibly human, and owning them makes a shared human future possible.

• Morris is head of media at the SA Institute of Race Relations.


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