FLOWER OF IMMORTALITY

by Dimana Trankova; photography by Anthony Georgieff

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. 

  • COMMENTING RULES

    Commenting on www.vagabond.bg

    Vagabond Media Ltd requires you to submit a valid email to comment on www.vagabond.bg to secure that you are not a bot or a spammer. Learn more on how the company manages your personal information on our Privacy Policy. By filling the comment form you declare that you will not use www.vagabond.bg for the purpose of violating the laws of the Republic of Bulgaria. When commenting on www.vagabond.bg please observe some simple rules. You must avoid sexually explicit language and racist, vulgar, religiously intolerant or obscene comments aiming to insult Vagabond Media Ltd, other companies, countries, nationalities, confessions or authors of postings and/or other comments. Do not post spam. Write in English. Unsolicited commercial messages, obscene postings and personal attacks will be removed without notice. The comments will be moderated and may take some time to appear on www.vagabond.bg.

Add new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.

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.

Discover More

SOFIA'S STRANGE MONUMENTS
Some monuments impress with their size, artistic value or historical significance, and some have a hidden history to match.

KUKERI AND THEIR DANCES
From Venice to Rio, carnivals are a time honoured tradition to celebrate the end of winter with a riot of noise and dance, with masks and a temporary subversion of established social roles.

THE VELCHOVA ZAVERA HIKE
Еvery April, since 2020, hundreds of young Bulgarians gather in Veliko Tarnovo and embark on a meaningful journey, retracing the steps of a daring rebellion that took place in the town and its surroundings, in 1835.

SHIPS OF ROCK
Sinemorets, at Bulgaria's southern Black Sea coast, remains one of the most idyllic and calmly beautiful spots around.

TOP MUST-SEES IN 2024
When wanderlust grabs you in 2024 but deciding on your next destination is hard, here is a list of places to whet your appetite. Some of them are millennia old and others are new, but they are all remarkable and most are one-of-a-kind.

BRUTALIST BULGARIA
A white mammoth dominates the upper part of Boulevard Todor Aleksandrov in central Sofia. Its massive, concrete surfaces are imposing.

LES FRANÇAIS EN BULGARIE
Before English took over in Bulgaria, in the 1990s, mastering French was obligatory for the local elite and those who aspired to join it.

WINTER NESEBAR
Winter is not only the time to head to Bulgaria's ski resorts. It is also the best time to enjoy some of this nation's most crowded tourist spots, such as Nesebar.

DEMON CHURCH
Crooked, horned and large-toothed, happily dragging sinners to Hell: demons make some of the most interesting, if slightly unrefined, characters of 19th century Bulgarian religious art.

DEAD POETS SOCIETY
It has become a commonplace that a nation can be understood best by the sort of treatment it give its poets rather by its military victories or GDP levels.

HISTORY, ROSES, AND WATER BUFFALOES
Years ago, if you'd asked me what I know about Bulgaria, I'd have said, "Not much. It's in Eastern Europe, behind the Iron Curtain, I think." Indeed, it was behind the Iron Curtain when that dark metaphor described a very real feature of the World Order.

DOORS WIDE SHUT
Ancient Thracian tombs, lighthouses, abandoned industrial facilities, Communist-era monuments... Bulgaria is crammed with sites of interest that ordinary travellers can marvel at only... from a distance.