Flor de Santiago
A burning dream of distance

Flor de Santiago 2The suggestive beauty of its incredible harmonious structure, so charged with colour, so fascinating in appearance, surges forth amongst us, from the remote horizons of the unknown, through the thick foliage of unfamiliar landscapes to become, today, the floral symbol of Santiago. It is probably the most beautiful of all worldly flowers. In addition to the appellation by which it is most commonly known, it also bears a name that links it to the great western myth of Christianity, not to mention to the hordes of guardians of great valour who galloped with the swiftness of the wind across the well trodden paths of the middle ages. Thus did it emerge, as though issued from the intangible folds of time carefully handwritten and sketched, to become indelibly etched in the mystery of that old city of soutanesque sombreness, through rain, and sun and stone, and stone and sun and rain, with voices and shades further shrouded in rain and sun and stone. As though engendered from the red tinge of an indolent twilight that is steeped in the towering lightness of the rocky baroque façades of the Plaza del Obradoiro (1)*, gleaming in the glow of night, and filtering through the sharp clarity of the stars… Flor de Santiago is like one of those grand secrets of nature that alchemists endeavoured to unravel at the very dawn of science – an ardently colourful enigma, with its rhythmic plant architecture, almost an intimate melody of silence that nestles in the beautiful purple essence of its evanescent presence.

The plant that has yielded such a beautiful flower was – along with a myriad of other products, seeds and objects hitherto unseen in these parts – among those gathered in the course of a natural science mission that ventured across the oceans at the behest of Monarch Philip II, led by the illustrious doctor and botanist, Francisco Hernandez. It was initially registered, in 1577, under the name of Narcissus Indicus. The revelation, however, or first textual description of this flower – considered then by the vast majority of scholars to be something most beautiful in appearance – is owed to the Hispano-Portuguese doctor, Simon de Tovar, a hefty trader in Mediterranean merchandise as well as merchandise of a different ilk – the type that was brought by intrepid sailors and slave traders in the hauls of ships returning from exotic lands beyond the seas first reached a hundred years earlier. He was also responsible for broadening the original denomination to encompass the Jacobean dimension: that strategic belief, almost magical, steeped in the feats of conquistadors and pontifical tensions. No sooner was it pronounced than the name was divulged amongst European peoples via the routes of scientific communication and pilgrimage, spreading like deep ecumenical roots that sprouted from the place where, legend had it, lay the apostolic remains in the Atlantic Kingdom of Galicia.

Possessing, as he did, vast knowledge of exotic plants, Tovar took the opportunity, in a letter to the Franco-Flemish botanist, Charles de l’Ecluse, (Carolus Clusius) in 1596, to explain that he was elaborating a catalogue that included a species called Atzcalxóchitl, or bulb with a red flower (nahuatl, in Aztec), whose chromatic properties were such that it exuded fascination and enchantment. “Its bulb-like root is blackish on the outside, with many heavy, darkish fibres hanging from its base. Many leaves spring out at the top and spread over the ground, thick and oblong, similar to vines, and are green and dark. A stalk runs through the middle of those leaves, which is bright red and between nine and twelve inches long; it is hollow and spongy and round on the inside, with a narrow stalk. This all culminates in a most beautiful bright, red flower, whose colour and shape remind me of the sword carried by the knights of Santiago; hence me being driven to call it Narcisum Indicum Jacobeum.” In another letter, after the bulbs had blossomed in his garden in Seville, Tovar offered a more detailed description of the narcissus, as he had called it. The name became quite popular and, thanks to it, that most beautiful flower entered the realms of Jacobean reference. It must not be forgotten that the Military Order of the Knights of Santiago was founded in the monastery of Santa Maria de Loio, in the XII century, in Cortes, in the Galician region, near Portomarin, on the French route – all the above mentioned being places often cited in ancient parchments and pilgrims’ tales. But long before then it was already an emblematic insignia on black canonical tunics as well as on both sides of the niche that protects the effigy of the Pilgrim Apostle on the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. At nightfall, the remarkable chromatic perception that is afforded of the darkness of the bulb in all its bright, maroon efflorescence is truly something to behold.

Many other botanists later evoked it in similar terms – terms which leave no doubt as to its unmistakeable Compostelaec essence: Pierre Vallet, in 1608, called it the Lilio Narcisus Indicus flore rubro Vulgo Jacobeus; it was dubbed the Narcisus Indicus flore rubro Vulgo Jacobeus in that seminal work of Botany, “Le jardin du Roy Tres Chrestien Louis XIIII, Roy de France et de Navarre, dédié à la Royne Mère de Sa Maiesté”; in 1629, John Parkinson called it the Narcisus Iacobeus flore rubro; in 1647, De Bry dealt with one of its varieties, the Narcisus latifolius Indicus rubro flore vulgo Iacobeus; in 1680, Robert Morison spoke of the Lilionarcissus Jacobeus latifolius Indicus rubro flore. It was thus that the myriad of common names that arose out of the array of appellations linked to Santiago came to take root in many European languages, as can be gleaned from published literature: in Spanish (Flor de Santiago, lirio de Santiago, capa de Santiago, encomienda de Santiago), in French (Lis de Saint-Jacques, Croix de Saint-Jacques), in English (Jacobean Lily, St. James Lily), in German (Jakobslilie), in Finnish (Jaakopnlija) in Hungarian (Jakabliliom), in Czech (Jakubska lilie), in Portuguese (Lirio de São Tiago), etc.

Perhaps the last plant phytologist to give it a name in this vein was Johann Jakob Dillenius, who called it the Lilio Narcissus jabobaeus, flore sanguíneo nutante, in 1732, in his “Dillenian Herbarum of Hortus Elthamensis”. Or, of course, John Hill, in 1759, who dubbed it the Jacobaen Amaryllis, given that the scientific denomination of this category of the species had already been accredited, six years earlier, in 1753, to the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus (Karl von Linné, Carlos Linneo) who called it the Amaryllis formosissima, making use of its double-vectored paradigmatic designation (genre and species). Finally, Sprekelia formosissima was definitively adopted, and was used up until modern times. It was, it would appear, the term given by the Reverend William Herbert, an English botanist and man of letters, in 1821. Thus far, a brief account of the quite lengthy pilgrimage of our pilgrim flower; a pilgrimage that is not easy to trace given the murkiness of the past; a pilgrimage which can be said to have begun with nautical discoveries in distant lands, from the ancient routes that led to the remote cities of Europe, through the old storehouses of merchants and the writing tables and gardens of botanists, on to neatly tended palace gardens, where it was grown and divulged as a rarity by travellers and messengers taking it in haversacks and saddlebags to the most varied and unlikely destinations of the Old Continent.

At different times, at undisclosed dates between the end of the renaissance and the advent of age of enlightenment in the study of Nature, Biology and Botany, some examples of the flower of this species began to appear in Galicia. It is anybody’s guess as to how it got there: anybody’s guess as to the mysterious circumstances, the chance routes and paths that have never been described, the pilgrim ways and untraceable whims of chance that allowed it to do so. It was brought from the fertile vastness of the Indies to missionary lands, to this country to which so much distant life, so much knowledge and so many legends came. It is known for sure, though, that when he made his second trip to Galicia, a land so familiar and so close to his heart, the wise and illustrious Benedictine friar, Martin Sarmiento (1695-1772), an outstanding figure of enlightened knowledge, who, forever driven by his passion for collecting words, plants and routes, indefatigably trekked leagues upon leagues of terrain, heard of this flower in the region of Pontevedra, as he states in his “Catalogue of vulgar words, especially Galician words, for different plants” (1754-1758). He claims to have seen this most beautiful flower in Pontevedra, in a garden of the monastery of Poio before it was abandoned by the Benedictine friars, and told his good friend, Joseph Quer y Martinez, distinguished surgeon, army consultant and eminent botanist, about it.

It is a friendship confirmed by the illustrious phytologist, C. Gomez Ortega, himself a great promoter of scientific expeditions, who talks about the journey undertaken by Quer to Galicia in 1761, in which he refers to the marvels of his native Galicia, “of whose natural riches he was told by his close friend, Friar Martin Sarmiento”. In reference to that journey and to our flower, Quer recalls, in the section devoted to the Lilllo-narcissus Jacobaeus, that he saw it “in copious quantities in Galicia, in the town of Pontevedra, in the ground and in the open”, and that it blossoms in June and July. We are also told that it could be found in the garden of Joseph de Castro, who, it is known, was a professor at the University of Compostela. On that occasion, Father Sarmiento picked the bulb, took it away, planted it in the convent cell and anxiously awaited its fruitful bloom, like someone nurturing a fleeting dream in a flowerpot of silence.

With regard to the universal city of Santiago, meeting place of hope and pilgrim ways, it is still quite possible that somewhere in the depths of its intimate history nestles vague certainty of the presence of new flowers within the confines of the city. Central to this is the eminent botanist of French origin, Abbot Pierre André Pourret, who, some years later, came from Madrid (after being sub-director of the Botanical Gardens) to Galicia in 1804, initially to Ourense, as canon of the cathedral, and remained there until he fled to the monastery of San Pedro de Montes, in El Bierzo, following the Napoleonic invasion of Galicia (Izco & Alvarez, 1996). He later went on to Compostela, in 1814, to take up another canonship. He also taught outside of his canonship (a certain Ramón de la Sagra was one of his students) until his death in 1818. During his stay in Compostela, he is believed to have lived outside the walled enclosures of the city, in a house in Pitelos street (between the slope and the cruceiro*(2) de Castrón de Ouro and the end of the intersection between la Horta da Inquisición and Hórreo Street), on a small bit of land overlooking the fields that led down to the valley of the Sar river, where, in his well kept garden, he tended lots of other produce. Throughout his life, Pourret garnered a quite priceless herbarium, with some eight thousand plant ferns that he gave to the College of Pharmacy of Santiago when it was founded in 1815 and which, when it was temporarily closed, was shifted to the Faculty of Pharmacy of the Complutense University of Madrid, where it permanently remained thereafter.

Lost in the slipstream of time and in the many twists and turns of fortune, the reel of the thread of history along which this splendid – almost fantastic – story unravels with its many interrupted sequences became buried in oblivion; and that beautiful flower with it. Until, quite unexpectedly, it reappeared, in contemporary times. Out of the blue, as so many wonderful things often do… A year ago, the Flor de Santiago was again spotted, in the context of the splendid exhibition, “Galicia en cartel”, staged at the foot of the raised column with a crown of arches and Languedoquian gothic ogees (the “palm tree”), which covers the beautiful apse of the Église des Jacobins, in Toulouse. It was like finding a mysterious bit of the past. Flor de Santiago now surges forth amongst us again, soaring up out of those ancient expanses of polychromatic glass transparencies, to be the protagonist of its natural exhibition and of its own history, in this magnificent exhibition that enriches and reactivates our memory in a setting where, here as well, the light of very high narrow windows projects the suggestive calm of gothic solitude abloom with ogees. The central focus is the point of intersection and the head of the three apses, in the middle and on both sides, under graceful ribbed vaults that provide a cold, protective, ornamental covering for this singular floral species, whose aura of delicate enchantment casts maroon tinges over the sombreness that pervades the air. Soaring majestically above it all, Flor de Santiago, a symbol of bright red cast against the stone of hope and resistance, like a flame on the altar of the setting sun in Fisterra, a purple speck in the light of dusk, within the air that blows in from all the routes that lead to Compostela, a burning dream of distance.

© Salvador García-Bodaño, 2009

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