Sunday, July 31, 2011

Large Leaf Soapwort

What’s blooming in the area: Rose of Sharon, Russian sage, buddleia, trumpet creeper, silver lace vine, red yucca, hollyhock, datura, sweet pea, purple phlox, cultivated sunflowers, Shasta daisy, few Sensation cosmos, squash, alfalfa.

Beyond the walls and fences: Apache plume, fernleaf and leatherleaf globemallows, cheese mallow, scarlet bee blossom, white and yellow evening primroses, whorled milkweed, bindweed, purple mat flower, goat’s head, white sweet clover, stickleaf, buffalo gourd, silver leaf nightshade, Russian thistle, spiny lettuce, horseweed, paper flower, golden hairy asters, gumweed, Hopi tea, goldenrod, áñil del muerto; buds on snakeweed.

In my yard, looking east: Garlic chives, winecup mallow, sidalcea, baby’s breath, Maltese cross, bouncing Bess, large-leaf soapwort, pink evening primrose, pink salvia, Shirley poppies; buds on Autumn Joy sedum and cutleaf coneflower.

Looking south: Floribunda and rugosa roses, Illinois bundle flower, reseeded and new morning glories, sweet alyssum and zinnia from seed.

Looking west: Caryopteris, David phlox, ladybells peaked, blue flax, catmints, calamintha, flowering spurge, sea lavender, Mönch aster.

Looking north: Blackberry lily, golden spur columbine, Hartweig evening primrose, Mexican hat, Parker’s Gold yarrow, chocolate flower, blanket flower, anthemis, black-eyed Susan, chrysanthemum; buds on hosta.

Bedding plants: Sweet alyssum, pansy, snapdragon, moss rose, nicotiana, tomato, pepper.

Inside: Zonal geranium, aptenia, asparagus fern.

Animal sightings: Hummingbird, other small birds, gecko, small bees, hornets, harvester and small black ants; hear crickets.

Weather: Some rain last night; 14:58 hours of daylight today.

Weekly update: Clusters of a pink-flowered soapwort have been filling the space between the taller sidalceas and invading hollyhocks since the first of July. At first, the five-petaled trumpets were near the front of the bed, but those are now tinker-toy spheres formed from shuttered bulbous pipes. The current flowers are hidden at the back. With luck, new ones will continue to open until mid October.

When I bought the woody rooted perennials in 2004, the label simply said they were “hybrid giant flowered soapwort” and “saponaria x lempergii.” The 3" pots were next to the more popular rock soapworts, and marketing placement was intended to suggest uses for the plant without actually committing the nursery to any definitive opinion.

The absence of facts, or even romantic narratives, seems the fate of this plant that’s outlived the era that called it into being. The historical context is gone. Fritz Lemperg, for whom it’s named, has become a Cheshire cat surviving as a shadow of himself on a few branches of the internet.

The red stemmed plant is a cross between Saponaria cypria and Saponaria haussknechtii. The first is found only in the Troodos mountains on Cyprus. The endangered perennial was first reported by Pierre Edmond Boissier, whose maternal grandfather was a Swiss physician and naturalist who took him hiking in the Alps as a child. He trained with Augustin Pyramus de Candolle in Geneva, then went searching for plants in Spain. In the 1840's he explored Greece, Turkey, Syria and Egypt where he accumulated the best collection then existing of plants from that region.

Gudrun Simmler, a Swiss botanist who published a monograph on soapworts in 1910, defined the second pink-flowered perennial as a separate species that grows in Albania, southern Yugoslavia, and northern Greece. Others believe it to be a subspecies of Saponaria sicula found in Sicily.

The nineteenth century development of botany as an academic field that valued the analysis of existing plants over the discovery of new ones favored men like Simmler over those like Boissier and relegated plant hunting to a hobby for the wealthy. Lemperg may have been an heir to this tradition, for he explored Albania in the 1930's and distributed plants and seeds he brought back to national botanical gardens.

There’s no indication whether Dr. Limperg actually tried crossing different plants or some patient, employee or colleague named the plant after him. All we know is he developed a large alpine collection at the sanatorium he opened in 1924 outside the capital of Styria in southeastern Austria, and by 1931, when Magnus Johnson went there to train as a gardener, it had some magnificent clematis.

The interest in plant hunting often followed from the more pragmatic training of doctors before the emergence of pharmaceutical conglomerates. Then, physicians were expected to know the healing characteristics of plants and natural history was part of their education. Many developed private botanical gardens as symbols of both their medical and social positions.

Some of the most intrepid searchers in this part of the world were German emigres who preferred the wilderness to medicine. Frederick Adolphus Wislizenus left his practice with Georg Englemann in Saint Louis to explore northern México where he found coral bells. Englemann, who developed the botanical garden in Saint Louis, would send the specimens he received from travelers to Asa Gray at Harvard, who then identified them using current scientific theories.

Sanatoriums themselves devolved from this utilitarian view of the natural world. In the 1850's, Hermann Brehmer abandoned the study of botany for medicine. After completing his degree in Berlin, he converted his sister-in-law’s spa in the Silesian mountains into a facility to test his theory that tuberculosis could be cured with fresh air, good diet and exercise.

There’s an oft repeated tale that Brehmer himself suffered from TB, and went to the Himalayas to study plants and treat himself. Peter Warren found no evidence for the veracity of the story that didn’t appear until a generation later and believes it part of the romantic aura associated with the alpine sensibility.

By the time Lemperg opened his institution, the idea of the sanatorium had expanded to include any facility in a suburban area that used fresh air and nutrition as part of the treatment. They often became places where people went to recuperate from stress or illnesses, differentiated from the neighboring spas by having a medical staff.

Sanatoriums disappeared after streptomycin was proven effective against the bacteria that causes tuberculosis in 1944. Perhaps equally important to limiting the spread of the infectious disease was the parallel transition to electric heat generated by power sent from remote utility plants that cleared the atmosphere of one factor that had weakened lungs, the dust and fumes of coal burning in every basement.

Nineteenth century medical training in natural science instilled the view that physicians were members of a scientific community dependent on one another’s experience. Much like plant collectors were expected to send their choicest finds to botanical gardens, students were told they should send descriptions of their most unusual cases to society journals.

F. Lemperg was continuing this tradition in the 1920's when he sent notes on knee and ear surgeries, along with descriptions of x-ray and anaesthesia techniques, to publications in Leipzig.

I don’t know if he’s the same Lemperg. German language medical journals from that era that would include the location or affiliation of an author aren’t yet available on the internet. All that survives from the time before malpractice rules limited what doctors learned or said and before drug companies alone provided continuing education for physicians are contemporary bibliographic entries from the publications that sought to keep their readers informed by giving them abstracts of current research.

In the nineteenth century, plant hunting, with its necessary hiking in remote areas, and the removal of the ill to country estates were entwined with the Romantic view of nature as a force for spiritual healing. In the twentieth century, that idea led to the rise of fresh air camps for the urban poor and exclusive summer camps for the upper classes.

Camps like the one I attended as a child failed to survive the 1970's when those run by middle class organizations were forced, by new charity rules, to open themselves to children unprepared for life outdoors. The ensuing clashes of cultures drove those interested in camping into private activities, while stranding the poor in remote cabins without electricity or running water. Many would have sympathized with Kate Gosselin who said, after spending a day with Sara Palin in the wilderness, “Why would anyone pretend to be homeless?”

The thing that most destroyed summer camps and the romantic view of nature, however, wasn’t the proliferation of celebrity lifestyles, but Adolph Hitler. Even today, many, especially those like Glenn Beck who didn’t go to summer camp as children, see any communal rural retreat as a Nazi program to brainwash the young.

Lemperg may, in fact, have been a Nazi supporter. Thomas Ster says that his political commitments lead to the decline of his business after the fall of Hitler’s Germany, and that the sanatorium closed after his death. It was taken over by Styria for the state’s agricultural and forestry school, which cut down the arboretum. Their reasons, like Lemperg’s politics, are obscured by postwar amnesia.

The hybrid soapwort, itself, is dependent on the continuity of human culture for its survival. The hairy ovaries are barren. When people no longer want their smooth green leaves, nurseries will no longer produce them. Then, when gardeners no longer make their own cuttings, the member of the carnation family will become extinct, less retrievable than information about Fritz Limperg on the web.

Beck, Glenn. On his 25 July 2011 radio program he said the Norwegian camp targeted by Anders Behring Breivik "sounds a little like the Hitler Youth. I mean, who does a camp for kids that's all about politics?" The connection he made is commonly held by people with very liberal views who are more knowledgabe about the rise of Hitler than they are general nineteen century German culture.

Boissier, Pierre Edmond. Flora Orientalis Sive Enumeratio Plantarum in Oriente a Graecia et Aegypto ad Indiae, supplement 83, 1888.

Gosselin, Kate. On the episode of Sarah Palin's Alaska that first aired 12 December 2010. A girl at the camp I talked to made it clear she’d rather be at a resort with a swimming pool and hired help.

Johnson, Magnus. Interview with John Howells reproduced as “John Howells Talks to Magnus Johnson,” available on-line.

Lemperg, F. “Duplicate Roentgenogram with One Exposure,” Zentralblatt für Chirurgie, Leipzig 56:1933:1929.

_____. “Gangrenous Dissecting Cystitis,” Zentralblatt für Gynäkologie, Leipzig 50:1203:1926.

_____. “Induced Ankylosis of Knee,” Zentralblatt für Chirurgie, Leipzig 48:486:1921.

_____. “Rectal Anaesthesia with Ether Oil,” Zentralblatt für Chirurgie, Leipzig 56:43:1929.

Lemperg, F. “Northern Albania,” New Flora and Silva 7:79-83:1934, cited by Peter Barnes and Petrit Hoda, “Plant Exploration in Albania,” Curtis's Botanical Magazine 18:170-179:2001.

Simmler, Gudrun. “Monographie der Gattung Saponaria,” Denkschrift der Akademie der Wissenschaft, Vienna 85: 433-509:1910.

Ster, Thomas. “Der Alpengarten Rannach,” Joannea Botanik 5:9-21:2006, says “sein politisches Engagement riss ihn mit dem Untergang Hitler-Deutschlands in den Abgrund.”

Warren, Peter. “The Evolution of the Sanatorium: The First Half-Century, 1854-1904,” The Canadian Bulletin of Medical History 23:457-476:2006.

Photograph: Large-leaved hybrid soapwort, 30 July 2011.

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