Friday, February 06, 2009


The Rhodora

Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Rhodora:
In May, when sea-winds pierced our solitudes,
I found the fresh Rhodora in the woods,
Spreading its leafless blooms in a damp nook,
To please the desert and the sluggish brook.
The purple petals, fallen in the pool,
Made the black water with their beauty gay;
Here might the red-bird come his plumes to cool,
And court the flower that cheapens his array.
Rhodora! if the sages ask thee why
This charm is wasted on the earth and sky,
Tell them, dear, that, if eyes were made for seeing,
Then Beauty is its own excuse for being:
Why thou wert there, O rival of the rose!
I never thought to ask; I never knew:
But in my simple ignorance, suppose
The self-same Power that brought me there brought you.
In Emerson's day, the plant was known as Rhodora canadensis (a genus with a single species), but today it is classified as Rhododendron canadense. Emerson's botanical details are accurate, as consultation of Nathaniel Lord Britton and Addison Brown, An Illustrated Flora of the Northern United States, Canada and the British Possessions, 2nd ed. (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1913; rpt. New York: Dover, 1970), II, 679-680, shows.

The first words of Emerson's poem are "In May," and Britton & Brown confirm that the flower does indeed bloom in May. Phenological data in Thoreau's Journal also support the May flowering time. Emerson refers to the "leafless blooms," and Britton & Brown say "flowers expanding with or before the leaves." In Emerson's poem, the flower resides in a "damp nook," and the habitat in Britton & Brown is "in bogs and on wet hillsides." Emerson specifies "purple petals," and Britton & Brown say "rose-colored, purple, or nearly white."

Rhodora is a pleasant-sounding name, but it could have been less euphonic. Heinrich Johann Nepomuk von Crantz, Institutiones Rei Herbariae, vol. II (Vienna: Kraus, 1766), pp. 468-469, suggested changing the name to Hochenwartia canadensis:
Cum Rhodorae nomen alteri datum fuerit plantae apud PLINIVM, hanc stirpem R.P. Hochenwart. S.I. Botanicae et Historiae naturali studiosissimo sacram volui.
Somehow Hochenwartia doesn't have quite the same ring as Rhodora.

Rhododendron canadense
Photograph by Albert F.W. Vick (Pennsylvania, 1991)

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