WRITING: Mirabilis jalapa in Europe, Gugulethu"
Updated: Mar 3, 2019
In 2017 I published an essay in the first edition of Folio Volume 1: PUPAE, the contemporary Journal of African Architecture produced by the Graduate School of Architecture (GSA) at the University of Johannesburg, also supported by the Graham Foundation in the same round as me. My essay was entitled ‘”A Rose by Any Other Name’: the long journey of Mirabilis jalapa to Europe, Gugulethu", and is reprinted below. This essay was the second outcome from a collaboration on the Gardens of Europe Project between Amy Thompson, Jared Coetzee, Michael Brown, Thozama Mputa and myself.
Using a hedge of the Latin American plant Mirabilis jalapa in the garden of a Xhosa man in the informal settlement of Europe in Gugulethu as an exploratory devic, this essay uses Mignolo’s method of “epistemic disobedience” to problematize plant categories like “indigenous” and “weeds”. The essay traces the route of the “Marvel of Peru” as it is known through the world to Cape Town and finds that indigenous people have happily adopted this non-indigenous plant because it performs in multiple ways including ornamentally, medicinally, and it, turns out, as a soil remediation device. In doing so the fetishisation of indigenous plants is revealed as trope of colonial identity, quite divorced from the pragmatic incorporation of alien species into a continuous land practice by indigenous people for whom culture and nature are not separate questions.
Sam Miziwake’s house, located in the informal settlement of “Europe” adjacent to the township of Gugulethu in Cape Town, is set on a hill with a panoramic view of Table Mountain that can be viewed from his adjacent courtyard. The courtyard is minimal, comprising only the surface and a single hedge running along the wall of his house.i The hedge along Sam’s house is wide and sprawling, a hedge of consistent mass rather than a series of strictly cut planes, since he prunes it by breaking off protruding branches, and is covered by pink flowers. The plant is called Mirabilis jalapa, also known as the “Marvel of Peru” or “Four o’clock” because its flowers open in the late afternoon and overnight. From the family of Nyctaginaceae, the same as the Bougainvillea, the plant is said to originate from Peru.
The inherent displacement in the name Europe, a name appropriated from a place far away, the source of the colonisation of South Africa and also home to many “great” gardens, provides an opportunity to reconsider plant categories of the “indigenous” and “weeds”, using Sam’s hedge as a starting point to explore origins and belonging, examining the journey of the Marvel of Peru to Cape Town.
Argentinian theorist of coloniality and professor at Duke University Walter Mignolo, proposes a way of tackling the coloniality of discourses which he calls “epistemic disobedience”, which “takes us to a different place, to a different “beginning””.ii By being “disobedient” to plant categories it is possible to address, as Descola and Pálson argue, “recurring criticism [in their edited volume] that the nature-culture criticism hinders true ecological understanding” by considering the “epistemological implications entailed by the dualist paradigm”.iii An anthropologist working in the Amazon forest examining the relationship of people and plants, the “true ecological understanding” to which Descola refers is a scientific understanding that ignores cultural divisions in the ecological sphere, thereby breaking a duality where people and plants are kept separate. Plant categories like “indigenous” or “weed” are a Colonial overlay because they remove plants from an ecological continuum that is also occupied by people who distinguish a plant only on the basis of how it might be used whether pragmatically or culturally, as do inhabitants of Europe like Sam who effortlessly incorporate weeds like Mirabilis jalapa. iv
The voyage of the “Marvel of Peru” to Cape Town was a long one. Despite being a Peruvian marvel, the earliest reference to Mirabilis jalapa may was Mexican, in the Libellus de medicinalibus Indorum herbis, the “Little Book of the Medicinal Herbs of the Indians”. This book was a Latin translation of an original Nahuatl, or Aztec, manuscript composed by Martín de la Cruz while at the Colegio de Santa Cruz de Tlatelolco, the first school of higher learning in Mexico, established in 1532, where Mirabilis jalapa was called “Tlaquilin”. Cruz proposed a number of uses for Tlaquilin, mostly for its roots, including for when “you see a festered spot gathering worms, [grinding it] together [with] the leaves of the quetzal-mizquitl, cimatl, tlal-cacapol, bramble bushes and the bark of the xilo-xochitl, and put into our best wine, applying the liquor to the affected spot morning and evening”.v
Joseph Ewan, the preeminent historian of American botany, argues instead that the earliest record of the plant may have been in a drawing by the botanist Clusius that was mis-identified as a jasmine but that he suggests is really Mirabilis jalapana. Clusius stated that this specimen was from Francis Drake’s visit to Chile, Peru and Mexico between 1578-79, and was grown from seed in Italy. Clusius visited Drake in 1581. vi Its incorporation into ornamental gardens in Europe was swift, considering the plant was included in John Gerard’s herbal published in 1597. Of its origin, Gerard said “the seed of this strange plant was first brought into Spain, from Peru, whereof it tooke his name Mirabilia Peruana or Peruviana: and since dispersed into all parts of Europe: the which my self have planted many yeers, and have in some temperate yeeres received both flowers and ripe seed”. He said it was called “Hachallndi” by Peruvians.vii, viii
The plant was included in Andrew Marvell’s poem “The Mower Against Gardens” from 1681 “another world was searched, through oceans new, / To find the Marvel of Peru”.ix Commenting on herbals such as Gerards, Benedict stresses the interaction of the global and the local in their discussion of the places in which each plant can be found.x It is interesting to note that despite an earlier reference in Mexico, the name of the plant that has stuck, the Marvel of “Peru” results not from any inherent quality of the plant but from its sequence of colonial propagation and dispersal.
After having been transposed from Peru to Europe, Mirabilis jalapana travelled to other new colonies, including America, with Favretti & DeWolf listing “the Marvel of Peru” as a “colonial garden plant” from the 18th century.xi
In Africa, Alpern suggests that the “Marvel of Peru” “may have been the first ornamental plant introduced to west Africa”, noting that “Barbot said the forests of Príncipe (an island off Guinea) contained large numbers [from a visit in 1682]” suggesting that the plant had naturalised in Africa within 100 years of its arrival in Europe. Indeed it seemed so clearly to belong in that environment that “Vogel collected a specimen in Sierra Leone in 1841”, presumably thinking it was an indigenous plant.xii Perhaps the earliest Mirabilis jalapa close to Sam’s garden were those noticed in 1793 in wealthy gardens in Cape Town by Carl Peter Thunberg, student of the great botanist Carl Linnaeus.xiii
Presently in South Africa, the National Environmental Management: Biodiversity (NEMBA) Act 10 of 2004 lists Mirabilis jalapa, in its National List of Invasive Species, giving the plant a designation of 1B.xiv At the heart of the act is the definition of an “alien species”, which is “a species that is not an indigenous species”, or in other words. An “alien invasive” species is a “weed”. South Africa has excellent environmental legislation which is effective within the formal economy of land tenure and planning policy, where developments require approval on the basis of their adherence to legislation and policy, however the scale of informal housing in the same catchments without the provision of sanitation make it almost impossible for desired environmental outcomes to be achieved without dealing first with infrastructure in informal settlements. Like inequality and white privilege, environmental legislation and policy is adjacent to, but seeks to be autonomous of the urban reality of the South African city. The sense of the environment in Cape Town, “The Cape Floral Kingdom”, and the designation of Mirabilis jalapa as a “weed” rests on the notion of a pristine pre-colonial indigenous landscape that the Marvel of Peru is “alien” to.
Calling something a “weed” is a designation that arises from the idea that particular plants that are indigenous to a place are better suited to it., “however”, Stephen Jay Gould suggests, “any argument for preferring native plants must rest upon some construction of evolutionary theory”.xv Speaking as a key contemporary theorist of evolutionary theory, Gould says that it introduced “the revolutionary idea that anatomies and interactions arise as transient products of complex history, not as created optimalities”, xvi adding that “natural selection is only a “better than” principle, not an optimizing device“.xvii Consequently, Gould argues “the first-order rationale for preferring native plants – that, as locally evolved, they are best adapted – cannot be sustained”.xviii Gould’s idea of traits as results of “complex histories” suggests that the resultant nature of a plant is a record of a journey, analogous to the complex movement of Mirabilis jalapa around the world, its ‘transicence’. Interestingly, “Marvel of Peru” is also tied to evolutionary theory, since, in the 19th century, Mendel used a single pollen grain to fertilise Mirabilis jalapa, thereby refuting the view of Darwin that a single pollen grain was not enough to fertilise an ovule.xix
If the rationale of ‘best fit’ appropriateness as a scientific rationale is removed from the discussion of why one plant is a weed and another is not, then a cultural agenda remains: preference. The rationale for preferring native plants is inherently political. Mastnak, Elyachar, and Boellstorff argue that preferring native plants might allow the possibility of “botanical decolonisation”.xx Interestingly, native plants were advocated during the 20th century for precisely the opposite reason, to affirm the identity of colonists. In the early 20th century “Table Mountain [and its flora, fynbos] became the ultimate symbolization of national unity” between Afrikaans and English South Africans who had been enemies during the South African wars,xxi leading to a “reification of ‘the land’.xxii Contemporary views of the indigenous continue and Comaroff and Comaroff note that “white Africans” are disproportionately represented in current conservationist circles”,xxiii noting the rise of “hack groups [to remove alien vegetation] in upper-middle class rural white areas” in the 1970’s.xxiv Speaking of this desire for indigeneity in South Africa, Murray notes that “design-led innovation [constructing indigenous identity] gave the issue of indigenous form and content and unprecedented popularity among white South Africans, transforming the more overt, even threatening discourses of indigeneity as they appear in the arena of political workplace into a ‘reasonable’ and desirable style repertoire”.xxv In essence Murray is proposing that an interest in indigenous plants, by being a-political, dehumanises the indigenous landscape: an interest in indigenous plants is not the same as in interest in indigenous people. xxvi, xxvii.
This tendency to equate weeds, plants that succeed but do not belong, to people has a history in the discourse of landscape design. Michael Pollan says that “until the Romantics, the hierarchy of plants was generally thought to mirror that of human society”, continuing to quote 19th century landscape gardener J.C. Loudon who urged his readers “to compare plants with men, [to] consider aboriginal species as mere savages and botanical species… as civilised beings”.xxviii It is interesting to note that Loudon’s quote demonstrates a time where the exotic, the “botanical” was preferred to the indigenous, the “aboriginal”, reflecting the conjunction of colonisation and science, where a collected plant reflected the prestige of empire in conquest.
In contrast to the interest in fynbos by white conservations, Comaroff and Comaroff note that “informal communities (in Cape Town) have burgeoned… in close proximity to healthy populations of combustible trees”xxix While arguing for native plants as a decolonising device, Mastnak, Elyachar, and Boellstorff also note that “myths of the “noble eco-savage” have been shown to be inaccurate….[because] native people actively managed and shaped their environment”,xxx their assertion of the primacy of native plants as a decolonizing act, I would argue, places indigenous people back in this place, if those same indigenous people are utilising alien plants in a similarly non-judgemental, pragmatic way now.
Having naturalised in Príncipe by the 17th century, after hundred of years on the continent it is not surprising that Mirabilis jalapa has become a part of traditional African medicine. Despite being an introduced species the Encyclopaedia of the History of Science, Technology and Medicine says that “recent photochemical analysis has shown that the roots of Mirabilis jalapa, used in South Africa as a purgative to treat some child diarrhoea’s, in fact exhibits anti-bacterial activity against an impressive array of child diarrhoea-causing pathogens”, xxxi this despite the fact that the plant is regarded as poisonous in NEMBA material. By coincidence, the same page of the Encyclopaedia is illustrated with a picture of a sangoma, or traditional African healer, in Gugulethu, next to which Europe is located, from 1982. Clearly categories such as “weed” are irrelevant, further demonstrated in the fact that urban Xhosa initiations (called “going to the bush”) in the Cape Town township of Langa, occur within a forest of the Australian invasive species of wattle, or “Port Jackson”, Acacia saligna. It would seem in the schema of the Xhosa plant world, utility trumps the abstract, since the Xhosa term for weed “Ukhula” means “growing uncontrollable” and refers to its competition with agricultural plants in a productive landscape, rather than with “indigenous plants”.
Under the heading “Why is it a problem”, the website Invasive Species South Africa notes that the plant is a “minor environmental weed or “sleeper weed”… capable of withstanding extended periods of drought due to its tuberous roots”.xxxii Ultimately the same qualities that make Mirabilis jalapa a weed also make it perform in Europe. While Sam does water his plants occasionally, it can withstand the dry conditions, and indeed thrive enough to begin to spread into the adjacent landscape around his house. Initially moving along the side of his house it has now appeared in properties further away but still in the proximity. As an ornamental plant, a source of colour requiring no maintenance, it has a clear aesthetic function, is a beautifying element in a very harsh environment, which, once separated from its weed designation, should be welcomed. Further, if one broadens the discussion from the artificial construct of the weed, the “Marvel of Peru” has an additional environmental role that makes it appropriate at Europe, the site of a former rubbish tip, since Mirabilis jalapa has also been found to have potential for bioremediation of soils containing heavy metals, such as cadmium, a common feature of tip sites.xxxiii
There is one more journey for “The Marvel of Peru” that ends up in Sam’s garden. When we ask how the plant ended up in his garden and in that configuration, he describes the arrival of his wife on her first visit to his house at Europe. Travelling from the Eastern Cape, a thousand kilometres away, before she left she collected Mirabilis jalapa seeds from her garden and brought them with her in her bag. When she arrived, in a moment of imagined theatre, she threw then along the ground by the house. In theories of landscape architecture distant from this intuitive gardeners actions but linked to the “Marvel of Peru”, French landscape architect Gilles Clément has been long working on a type of garden that could describe Sam’s garden, the “Garden of Movement”, which “refers to the physical movement of plant species on the land, which the gardener interprets in his own way”.xxxiv Clément’s description of how to make a garden of movement recalls Sam’s wife’s actions: “Plunge your hands into the oilseed flax… make the sweeping gesture of the sower, pushing your arms forward and letting the seeds sift through your fingers. Start again, following the rhythm of your steps, until you have sown all the seeds”. In a plan that accompanies the text, the form of the planting is the result of the kinaesthetic and tactile actions of the gardener, in the same way that the form of the hedge results from how Sam’s wife laid down a row of seeds that became a hedge.
In his discussion of Andrew Marvell’s poem, Benedict says that “the garden the mower describes is a hybrid site, a place for the cultivation of the “adulterate” and the “strange”.xxxv This could be a description of Sam’s garden, a place where a desire to create a home has catalysed a weed invasion to become an ordered, formal garden. Sam’s garden urges us to recognise that people and plants move and live together, and have, and will, for a long time to come and that artificial, Colonial ecological categories have no place in peoples’ spontaneous search for beauty and utility.
i While Sam’s house might referred to as a shack, I refer to it as a house to acknowledge it as a home that he has made: a house by any other name. Sam was interviewed and photographed on 25th May 2015, according to guidelines established during a University of Cape Town ethics approval process.
ii Walter D. Mignolo, "Epistemic Disobedience and the Decolonial Option: A Manifesto," TransModernity 2, no. 1 (2011): 45.
iii Phillipe Descola and Gísli Pálsson, "Introduction," in Nature and Society: Anthropological Perspectives, ed. Phillipe Descola and Gísli Pálsson (New York: Routledge, 1996), 3.
v Martín de la Cruz, An Aztec Herbal: The Classic Codex of 1552, trans. William Gates (Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, 2000), 87. Despite Gates translation referring to Mirabilis jalapa as by this name, other ethnobotanic resources ascribe the name to other Ipomea (Morning glory) species (http://www.tlahui.com/herbolaria/xihuitl_completo.php?fotoplanta=Tlaquilin)
vi Joseph Ewan, "Seeds and Ships and Healing Herbs, Encouragers and Kings," Bartonia, no. 45 (1978): 24.
vii John Gerard, The Herball, or, Generall Historie of Plantes (London: Adam Islip, Joice Norton and Richard Whitakers, 1632).
ix Benedict S. Robinson, "Green Seraglios: Tulips, Turbans, and the Global Market," Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies 9, no. 1 (2009): 100.
x Ibid., 97.
xi Rudy J. Favretti and Gordon P. DeWolf, "Colonial Garden Plants," Arnoldia 31, no. 4 (1971).
xii Stanley B. Alpern, "Exotic Plants of Western Africa: Where They Came from and When," History in Africa 35 (2008): 91.
xiii C.J Skead, Historic Plant Incidence in Southern Africa: A Collection of Early Travel Records in Southern Africa, vol. Strelitzia 24 (Pretoria: South African National Biodiversity Institute, 2009), 11.
xiv Republic of South Africa, "Nemba Invasive Species Lists," in Government Gazette, 29 July 2016, ed. Department of Environmental Affairs (Pretoria2016).
xv Stephen Jay Gould, "An Evolutionary Perspective on Strengths, Fallacies, and Confusions in the Concept of Native Plants," Arnoldia 58, no. 1 (1998): 4.
xvi Ibid., 5.
xvii Ibid., 6.
xix Curt Stern, "The Continuity of Genetics," Daedalus, 99, no. 4 (1970): 885.
xx Tomaz Mastnak, Julia Elyachar, and Tom Boellstorff, "Botanical Decolonization: Rethinking Native Plants," Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 32 (2014).
xxi Simon Pooley, "Pressed Flowers: Notions of Indigenous and Alien Vegetation in South Africa's Western Cape, C. 1902–1945," ibid.36 (2010): 601.
xxii Jeremy Foster, "'Land of Contrasts' or 'Home We Have Always Known'?: The Sar&H and the Imaginary Geography of White South African Nationhood, 1910-1930," Journal of South African Studies 29, no. 3 (2003): 659.
xxiii Jean Comaroff and John L. Comaroff, "Naturing the Nation: Aliens, Apocalypse and the Postcolonial State," Journal of Southern African Studies 27, no. 3 (2001): 637.
xxiv Ibid., 640.
xxv Sally-Ann Murray, "The Idea of Gardening: Plants, Bewilderment, and Indigenous Identity in South Africa," English in Africa 33, no. 2 (2006): 54.
xxviii Michael Pollan, Second Nature (London: Bloomsbury, 2002), 109.
xxix Ibid., 642.
xxx Mastnak, Elyachar, and Boellstorff, "Botanical Decolonization: Rethinking Native Plants," 374.
xxxi John M. Janzen and Edward C. Green, "Medicine in Africa," in Encyclopedia of the History of Science, Technology and Medicine in Non-Western Cultures, ed. Helaine Selin (Berlin: Springer, 2008), 1505.
xxxii Invasive Species South Africa, "Four O`Clock: Mirabilis Jalapa," http://www.invasives.org.za/legislation/item/677-four-o-clock-mirabilis-jalapa.
xxxiii Zhiguo Yua and Qixing Zhou, "Growth Responses and Cadmium Accumulation of Mirabilis Jalapa L. Under Interaction between Cadmium and Phosphorus," Journal of Hazardous Materials 167, no. 1-3 (2009).
xxxiv Gilles Clément, "The Garden in Movement," in Planetary Gardens: The Landscape Architecture of Gilles Clément, ed. Alessandro Rocca (Basel: Birkhauser, 2007).
xxxv Robinson, "Green Seraglios: Tulips, Turbans, and the Global Market," 100.
Africa, Invasive Species South. "Four O`Clock: Mirabilis Jalapa." http://www.invasives.org.za/legislation/item/677-four-o-clock-mirabilis-jalapa.
Africa, Republic of South. "Nemba Invasive Species Lists." In Government Gazette, 29 July 2016, edited by Department of Environmental Affairs. Pretoria, 2016.
Alpern, Stanley B. "Exotic Plants of Western Africa: Where They Came from and When." History in Africa 35 (2008): 63-102.
Clément, Gilles. "The Garden in Movement." In Planetary Gardens: The Landscape Architecture of Gilles Clément, edited by Alessandro Rocca, 13. Basel: Birkhauser, 2007.
Comaroff, Jean, and John L. Comaroff. "Naturing the Nation: Aliens, Apocalypse and the Postcolonial State." Journal of Southern African Studies 27, no. 3 (2001): 627-51.
Cruz, Martín de la. An Aztec Herbal: The Classic Codex of 1552. Translated by William Gates. Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, 2000.
Descola, Phillipe, and Gísli Pálsson. "Introduction." In Nature and Society: Anthropological Perspectives, edited by Phillipe Descola and Gísli Pálsson, 1-22. New York: Routledge, 1996.
Ewan, Joseph. "Seeds and Ships and Healing Herbs, Encouragers and Kings." Bartonia, no. 45 (1978): 24-29.
Favretti, Rudy J. , and Gordon P. DeWolf. "Colonial Garden Plants." Arnoldia 31, no. 4 (1971): 172-255.
Foster, Jeremy. "'Land of Contrasts' or 'Home We Have Always Known'?: The Sar&H and the Imaginary Geography of White South African Nationhood, 1910-1930." Journal of South African Studies 29, no. 3 (2003): 657-80.
Gerard, John. The Herball, or, Generall Historie of Plantes. London: Adam Islip, Joice Norton and Richard Whitakers, 1632.
Gould, Stephen Jay. "An Evolutionary Perspective on Strengths, Fallacies, and Confusions in the Concept of Native Plants." Arnoldia 58, no. 1 (1998): 3-10.
Janzen, John M., and Edward C. Green. "Medicine in Africa." In Encyclopedia of the History of Science, Technology and Medicine in Non-Western Cultures, edited by Helaine Selin. Berlin: Springer, 2008.
Mastnak, Tomaz, Julia Elyachar, and Tom Boellstorff. "Botanical Decolonization: Rethinking Native Plants." Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 32 (2014): 363– 80.
Mignolo, Walter D. "Epistemic Disobedience and the Decolonial Option: A Manifesto." TransModernity 2, no. 1 (2011): 44-66.
Murray, Sally-Ann. "The Idea of Gardening: Plants, Bewilderment, and Indigenous Identity in South Africa." English in Africa 33, no. 2 (2006): 45-65.
Pollan, Michael. Second Nature. London: Bloomsbury, 2002.
Pooley, Simon. "Pressed Flowers: Notions of Indigenous and Alien Vegetation in South Africa's Western Cape, C. 1902–1945." Journal of Southern African Studies 36, no. 3 (2010): 599-618.
Robinson, Benedict S. "Green Seraglios: Tulips, Turbans, and the Global Market." Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies 9, no. 1 (2009): 93-122.
Skead, C.J. Historic Plant Incidence in Southern Africa: A Collection of Early Travel Records in Southern Africa. Vol. Strelitzia 24, Pretoria: South African National Biodiversity Institute, 2009.
Stern, Curt. "The Continuity of Genetics." Daedalus, 99, no. 4 (1970): 882-908.
Yua, Zhiguo, and Qixing Zhou. "Growth Responses and Cadmium Accumulation of Mirabilis Jalapa L. Under Interaction between Cadmium and Phosphorus." Journal of Hazardous Materials 167, no. 1-3 (2009): 38-43.