FLOWER OF IMMORTALITY

FLOWER OF IMMORTALITY

Tue, 06/02/2020 - 16:39

Haberlea rhodopensis recalls times before the Ice Age

haberlea-rhodopensis2.jpg

In myths, science and fiction, people have searched for immortality since time immemorial – pun not intended. So far, as much as we know, to no avail. However, a plant that is found exclusively in Bulgaria solved the problem millions of years ago.

Haberlea rhodopensis, or rodopski silivryak, as it is called in Bulgarian, is a small evergreen perennial plant with nice but hardly spectacular violet flowers. In the whole world, it can be found growing in the shady crevices of carbonate rocks of only two Bulgarian mountain ranges, the Stara Planina and the Rhodope, and in pockets of northern Greece. Botanists call such region-specific species endemic.

The only representative of the genus Haberlea, it was already in existence by the end of the Oligocene period, about 23 million years ago. Haberlea rhodopensis fared well over the next few million years, while mammals, birds and our human ancestors evolved. Unlike many of these species, the small plant proved well-suited to survive the fast (geologically speaking) climate change of the Quaternary period that started 2 million years ago and consisted of constant oscillation between glacial and interglacial periods. As Europe's landscape was changing beyond recognition, Haberlea rhodopensis survived in the Rhodope and the Stara Planina. Today, it is one of the few living remnants of Ice Age Europe.

The plant's resilience was the secret of its survival. It prefers damp areas, typically on rocky outcrops hovering over precipices where humans and animals cannot reach. Significantly, it can survive without water for months or even years. According to anecdotal evidence, dried plants that had spent years in herbaria could return to life after being exposed to water.

Haberlea rhodopensis

When walking along the rivers of the Stara Planina and the Rhodope, watch out for the purple blossoms of Haberlea rhodopensis 

That is why one of the plant's names in Bulgaria is bezsmartniche, or Immortal Flower, and why the legend of its origin is connected to one of the few people who travelled to the kingdom of death and returned alive – Orpheus.

The mythical Thracian singer and musician was so talented that his music could soothe people, tame wild animals and even charm rocks. Yet in myth, as in real life, talent does not guarantee happiness. Orpheus's beloved wife Eurydice died young, after being bitten by a snake.

Unable to cope with his grief, Orpheus descended into the Underworld, charming its terrifying inhabitants and monsters with his music. The singer's plea moved even Hades, the Lord of Death, and his wife Persephone. A deal was struck. Eurydice could return to life, but while leading her out of the kingdom of death, Orpheus was banned from looking back or talking to her. Just a few steps before reaching daylight and a happy ending, Orpheus did turn back – only to see Eurydice descending forever into the world of eternal shadow, sorrow and death.

Heart-broken, Orpheus began to weep. Where his tears fell on the ground, they turned into Haberlea rhodopensis.

Another version of the legend goes further. After returning from the underworld, grief-stricken Orpheus enraged a group of women (accounts on why and how he did that vary) and they attacked and killed him. Where Orpheus's blood dropped, immortal flowers blossomed.

Such legends are probably of recent origin, as no ancient Greek or Roman account mentions flowers blossoming from Orpheus's tears or blood. These stories nevertheless are popular in Bulgaria, which prides itself on being the birthplace of the mythical singer. That is why Bulgarians also call Haberlea rhodopensis Orpheus's flower.

Orpheus and Eurydice

Statue of Orpheus and Eurydice at Smolyan, in the Rhodope. According to a (probably new) legend, the two used to live in the region

The origins of the plant's scientific name are more prosaic. When Austrian-Hungarian researcher Imre Frivaldszky discovered it, in 1835, he named it after his teacher, German botanist Carl Constantin Haberle.

Today many Bulgarians believe that Haberlea rhodopensis has almost magical healing and rejuvenating powers, deemed so strong that tea made of the plant should be drunk only once in five years. Such claims are not corroborated. Due to the decline of its habitat, Haberlea rhodopensis is critically endangered and is protected by Bulgarian law. 


us4bg-logo-reversal.pngVibrant Communities: Spotlight on Bulgaria's Living Heritage is a series of articles, initiated by Vagabond Magazine, with the generous support of the America for Bulgaria Foundation, that aims to provide details and background of places, cultural entities, events, personalities and facts of life that are sometimes difficult to understand for the outsider in the Balkans. The ultimate aim is the preservation of Bulgaria's cultural heritage – including but not limited to archaeological, cultural and ethnic diversity. The statements and opinionsexpressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the America for Bulgaria Foundation and its partners


Issue 164 America for Bulgaria Foundation Nature The Rhodope The Stara Planina
0 comments

Add new comment

Restricted HTML

  • Allowed HTML tags: <a href hreflang> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote cite> <code> <ul type> <ol start type> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd> <h2 id> <h3 id> <h4 id> <h5 id> <h6 id>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Web page addresses and email addresses turn into links automatically.
CAPTCHA
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Discover More

lions bridge sofia 5.jpg
LIONS BRIDGE
Unlike most great cities, Sofia is located neither at a sea, nor near an important river. The Perlovska and the Vladayska, the two rivulets that skirt the northern, eastern and southern boundaries of the city centre, are too small to count.

The remains of the 1981 secret digs at Golyamo Gradishte peak
LAND OF FAKE MYSTERIES
"I dislike bringing people here." The voice of the guide from the tourist office in Malko Tarnovo drops, as we approach the summit of Golyamo Gradishte, the highest peak in the Bulgarian part of the Strandzha mountains. It is summer.

Rock niches near Zhenda village
WONDERS OF STONE IN RHODOPE
When travelling around the Eastern Rhodope, you are bound to encounter this strange sight: on certain precipitous rocks, here and there, are scattered small, dark niches. Some are on their own, others form groups of dozens.

poppy.jpg
TOP 5 INSTAGRAMMABLE LOCATIONS
As Bulgaria and the world slowly come back to life after the Covid-19 pandemic travellers, visitors and expats prepare to put into practice the plans they had so many stay-at-home days to draw. Many can't wait to get on the road again.

nestinari-3.jpg
BULGARIA'S FIREWALKERS
Police checkpoints, scores of cars parked along the roadside and throngs of people crowding between stalls selling candyfloss, kepabcheta and cheap Made-in-China toys: on 3 June, the village of Balgari looks much like any Bulgarian village during a country

eliezer-papo-grave_0.jpg
19TH CENTURY RABBI HALTS MAJOR EPIDEMIC
The coronavirus outbreak has stopped the world in its tracks and made the word quarantine a part of everyday life, and vocabulary.

3e1d29b65e89b5e0b3c1385d51031f62_XL.jpg
VALLEY OF THRACIAN KINGS
The Valley of Roses: Until recently, the picturesque valley between the Stara Planina and the Sredna Gora mountain ranges was known by this name, as it is the centre for the production of the famous Bulgarian attar of roses.

cb0e1b464e3b5c1afaf2aa277dff6070_XL.jpg
SATIRE, MUSIC & TAIL-LESS CATS
Bulgaria is hardly on the list of the world's most famous carnival destinations such as Rio, Venice and New Orleans, and even less famous local ones such as the carnivals in Greece.

46a6d3fa3730bbc176c46dd1be92fe9e_XL.jpg
WHO WERE CYRIL AND METHODIUS?
The image of two men, one young and sporting a dark beard and the other older and white-bearded, with books and parchments in their hands, are to be found all over Bulgaria. There are countless statues and posters, church murals and icons.

d5983bb71ac089893bdb47b02778b646_XL.jpg
FLOWER TURNS BULGARIA RED
Travelling around the countryside in Bulgaria is a true joy in late spring and early summer, when the days are long, the sun is bright, and lush greenery brings life to the empty villages and abandoned industrial ruins that still define the local landscape

a2429d666fe7ce4e9cc4add5ad02bfd0_XL.jpg
BULGARIA'S MYSTERY ROCKS
When the first Western traveller saw Pobiti Kamani near Varna, he could not believe his eyes.

1571de7e2c9161c3c33c0f290e73ebfe_XL.jpg
EASTER IN RILA MONASTERY
The chatter of the small group of people at the gate of Rila Monastery in the cold spring evening is of the sort you can hear anywhere and anytime: hellos, how-do-you-dos, smalltalk, but neither the place, nor the people nor the occasion are ordinary.