Cross-Sections of the False Narcissus
by Colin Raff
Flourishing in the northern provinces, the Balkan False Narcissus (Crinum ponticum) stands out as one of Euxinova’s most notable bulbous perennials. Its blossom occurs naturally in two colors: a very dark purple that often appears black, and a pale, off-white variant (subsp. albinum). For centuries, amateur botanists have found it easy and rewarding to join two cleanly split bulb halves (cut vertically) resulting in a graft with attractive flowers in which the colors of the petals are not blended but alternately light and dark.
This unique appearance has led the hybrid to be titled “the Dioscuri Ornamental,” a reference to the important roles played by the mythical figures of Castor and Pollux in the local folklore. Stories dating from the Roman occupation of Euxinova feature the brothers (following their reemergence in the mortal world to take part in The Battle of Lake Regillus) patrolling the Black Sea as twin patrons of the shipwrecked. In this incarnation, Pollux, an indomitable youth during daylight hours, shares his immortality with his brother by becoming a ghost at night, whereas Castor is an insubstantial specter by day who becomes an indomitable youth at sundown.
According to legend, the Dioscuri would come upon a shipwreck caused by the collision of two vessels (invariably due to piracy) and reconstitute them into a single ship to be manned by the besieged party. This service offered a balance to contemporaneous accounts of Pumphon (son of Mercury and the Nereid Pontoporia), the tutelary deity of pirates who haunted the same region.
It is also the apparent source of certain vague idioms, such as recorded by the Soviet architect Anatoly Polyanski while in Gurzuf (following an earthquake), upon overhearing some Bulgarian laborers discussing how to salvage of a pair of concrete modules: “They say they can manage a ‘Castor and Pollux’ with these,” he wrote in his journal.
Devotional leaflets circulated throughout Euxinova in the 1880s described the bulb of a Crinum ponticum split down the middle, and with it, in perfect bisection, the embedded body of a non-endemic Mandragora Wasp (Zethus circaeon). Each half of the wasp hosted eggs of its parasite, the Dryinid Bocchinae autumnalis, which would hatch into markedly different creatures depending on their location. Those in the wasp’s left side emerged as “precocious larvae” that attacked other parasites, while those in the right side became adults — albeit in truncated form, as both variants had only three robust and operative legs each, the other three tiny and vestigial.
This miraculous instance of faux-polyembryony was of course entirely false: fabricated by the quasi-Theosophist Order of the Triple Veil and promoted as an instance of the “mystical connections” meant to validate the claims of the organization (which was in truth a front for smugglers).
At around this time in the province of Varstulla Minor, rumors emanated from among spa attendees that hybrid false Narcissus blossoms, with black and white petals as if grafted, grew wild in the marshes. No example was ever produced, although authorities offered prizes for a fully intact specimen (to confirm that the bulb had occurred in nature and was not a graft installed as a prank).
Curiously, earlier recorded superstitions also warned any who came upon just such a two-toned flower not to impetuously pluck the blossoms, but to uproot the entire plant and preserve the bulb for good luck.
A good-luck trinket possibly inspired by the bulb has attained near-ubiquity on the dashboards of taxis in Ellubecque (Euxinova’s capital): from elastic bands stretched between a pair of plastic columns (recalling the votive dokana that symbolized the mythical twins) swings a ball with black and white hemispheres. The packaging makes no mention of the Dioscuri, but promises “protection against collisions.”
Cross-Sections of the False Narcissus is an Exhibition by Colin Raff at Mein Haus am See, Berlin, presented by Berfrois and Queen Mob’s Teahouse, which opened Wednesday November 23, 2016.