lblanchard: (swannfountain)
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[This is one in what has now become an almost-weekly series of postings inspired by Abigail Rorer, Mimpish Squinnies: Reginald Farrer's Short Guide to Worthless Plants. Rorer's book includes prints of fourteen plants Farrer considered worthless-- an interesting hybrid of botanically accurate and...different. You can see her work, including all fourteen mimpish squinnies, here: ]

A brief entry for a Halloween Mimpish Monday today, and one that is seasonally appropriate in a couple of respects, Physalis alkekengi. Reginald Farrer does not like this plant. Abigail Rorer's illustration hints at the reasons for Farrer's ire, as well as the cultural significance of the plant among some Buddhist communities.

Physalis alkekengi, by Abigail Rorer, from
Mimpish Squinnies: Reginald Farrer's Short Guide to Worthless Plants

Physalis. —After Phlox and Phyllodoke [the two previous entries, on which Farrer lavished fulsome praise], who will not be made sick by the mere name of these rank and leafy weeds, with their ostentatious "Japanese Lanterns " of orange and red ? These are, of course, the dismal sere decorations of winter ; and any flower that allows its corpses out for so grim a purpose can only be reckoned as a blackleg in the floral Union, going out to illegitimate employment when all decent plants are enjoying the night when no man can work ; and earning by this treachery a place in the garden to which their rank ugliness of summer would certainly not entitle them.
(The English Rock-Garden, Volume 2, page 69)

Physalis alkekengi, balloon
CC BY-SA 3.0,

Farrer is certainly unfair here, although his remarks about the plant's rankness are echoed in the Wikipedia entry ("tends to be invasive"). The flowers are white and inconspicuous, and signal the plant's kinship with the rest of the Solanaceae (potatoes, tomatoes, nightshade, peppers, etc.). After the plant has dried, the small orange fruit is caged in a skeletal housing.

By Subin.a.mathew - United Kingdom
CC BY-SA 3.0,

What's more surprising is that Farrer, a professed Buddhist and Japanophile as well as a plant-hunter, was not aware of the plant's use in the centuries-old Japanese Buddhist Bon Festival honoring one's ancestors -- putting it right up there with the Dia de Muertos, although it is celebrated in the summer and not the autumn. Shame on Farrer for not knowing that the fruits are used as an offering to the dead. Of course, he didn't have the internets to make him immediately erudite -- as we can be.

Physalis alkekengi at Hozuki Market in Japan
By Ocdp - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

(I learned new things writing this entry. I didn't know anything about the Bon Festival until Wikipedia made me an Instant Expert.)
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