Baldwin’s Kissing Comfit

03 Oct

Baldwin’s Eryngo

Eryngium baldwinii


Today John, John’s wife Dee Staley,  and George enjoyed a field trip on a perfect October day to the Kissimmee Prairie State Park with the Palm Beach Chapter of the Florida Native Plant Society.  On the way, Dee pointed out  Crested Caracaras to add delight to the day.  Sorry, no pictures!

Although the main theme of the expedition was hot and heavy grass-watching, one of the first distractions was Baldwin’s Eryngo sprawling  in a sandy meadow displaying its fuzzy little blue flower globes.  This species creeps around most of Florida and a little in neighboring states, often on seasonally moist sands.

Baldwin's Eryngo in Kissimmee Prairie State Park. Photo by JB.

Now for a momentary edifying sidetrack.  Ever wonder why so many plants of the Southeastern U.S. have Baldwin in their names, usually as  baldwinii?— Eryngium bladwiniiEleocharis baldwiniiScleria baldwiniiRhynchospora baldwinii.   William Baldwin (1779-1819) was a Philadelphia physician and botanist prone to explore the Southeastern U.S. (and much beyond);  he had a jones for sedges.  His friends, enemies, and correspondents were a who’s who of American botany of the period, their names echoing through the botanical literature as specific epithets:  Amphicarpum muhlenbergii,   Eragrostis elliottii, Fraxinus darlingtonii.  Dr. Baldwin was probably mostly a swell guy, yet he dissed the work of his controversial contemporary Constantine Rafinesque acidly as “the wild effusions of a literary madman.”  The madman outlived the doctor by over 20 years.  Baldwin died of Tuberculosis on a plant-hunting excursion.

Back to Baldwin’s Eryngo.  Crush it…smell the carrots?  Eryngos are in the Carrot Family, the Apiaceae, also known as the Umbelliferae for their  trademark umbel inflorescence.  In Eryngo the umbel is squshed down to a tight flower head reminiscent of Asteraceae.

This would be a fun genus to study, or maybe a nightmare, due to the mind-boggling diversification of its species.  If Darwin had not studied finches, Eryngium could have helped illuminate the origin of species.  Around here we see Eryngium yuccifolium, Rattlesnake Master, which looks like a desert yucca, and we see and smell  the utterly different Eryngium aromaticum, which has bristly leaves not too different from some lawn weed.

Statewide there are nine species in Florida from the tip of the Panhandle to the docks of Miami, in habitats ranging from swampish to scrub,  one species endemic and endangered (Scrub Eryngium), a couple others escaped  exotics.  The garden selections are mighty pretty and are probably taken to be thistles by casual passers-by.

The crazy quilt of Eryngium diversity has not escaped the interest of contemporary taxonomists who are attacking  the genus—known for long distance dispersals, hybridizations, and rapid diversification—using DNA techniques to sort it all out.   There are over 200 species worldwide.  As varied as the species may be in overall appearances, in habitat preferences, and in behavior, they all have flowers in globose heads, and these are often blue.

Being fragrant, Eryngos collectively have big histories in human affairs.  As explained in Dan Austin’s “Florida Ethnobotany,” candied Eryngium bits were called “kissing comfits.”  They  were the breath mints of their day, except better, having aphrodisiac power.  Along these lines, and  to recycle Dr. Austin’s gleanings from Shakespeare, Falstaff said:

“Let the sky rain potatoes; let it thunder to the tune of Greensleeves; hail kissing comfits and snow eryngoes; let there come a tempest of provocation.”

Who said botany is stodgy?   In what other blog does a smelly little weed  lead to aphrodesia and tempests of provocation!


Posted by on October 3, 2011 in Baldwin's Eryngo



2 responses to “Baldwin’s Kissing Comfit

  1. Steve Woodmansee

    October 3, 2011 at 8:10 pm

    What a cool little weed. Despite being tiny, the blue in those infloresences is striking. Many Eryngiums are awesome nectar plants, yet few are in cultivation yet…

    Great article!

  2. George Rogers

    October 3, 2011 at 10:03 pm

    Yes, there’s something compelling about those little blue heads, sorta Smurfy. Saw you are speaking up here at the NPS next month. Unfortunately class duty chains me to the college that night, so have to miss that fine and rare opportunity.


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