Friday, March 30, 2012

The Sloth and the Wisteria

Sometimes posing a simple question can lead to a number of interesting coincidences
and form a unique tapestry of information that is related by degrees.

Take my query on the name wisteria for example.
I've said before how much I enjoy seeing it,
but my knowledge of it was limited to its appearance along roadsides,
 its graceful habit on arbors, and the fact that my wisteria never blooms
because it doesn't get enough sun.

So here is what I discovered,
thanks to,,
and the online encyclopedia,, and

To understand why sloths and wisteria are conflated in this blog,
we will need to begin in the 19th century with Thomas Jefferson,
one of the most creative and inquiring minds in Virginia history.

According to Spamer and McCourt on the Lewis and Clark website,
Thomas Jefferson had received fossilized bones dug up from a cave by saltpeter miners
(who knew that was a 19th century occupation?)
who were working in Greenbriar County in what was then Virginia, now West Virginia.

Jefferson, being of well-earned reputation as a Renaissance man,
was their first choice to have the bones.
Jefferson called in his friend, Caspar Wistar,
renowned physician, philosopher, and anatomist, to help him identify them.
As it turns out, they had in their possession  the fossilized remains of a megalonyx.
(A very Dr. Suess-y kind of name, for sure.) And what is a megalonyx? A giant sloth.

Now one may still wonder how a fossilized sloth has anything to do with wisteria?
Stay with me.

We have to thank for this next bit of information:
Dr. Wistar was an important man in his day, so when he passed away in 1818,
the English botanist Thomas Nuttal named
the vining, lavendar-flowering Asian cultivar he had been working with a wisteria. explains that Nuttal purposely named it a wisteria, and not a wistaria,
because he also wanted to honor his close friend Charles Jones Wister
(Mister Wister, if you will).

So, we have a giant sloth and a beautiful purple-blue flowering vine
often planted in Japanese gardens and near Shinto and Buddhist temples.
This is a fitting location because the wisteria is revered
by Japanese Shinshu Buddhists as a symbol of humility and reflection.
The Buddhists chose the wisteria because its flowers hang low, and they
consider that symbolic of modesty, humbleness, and meek submissiveness

Now, what could be more humble, meek, and submissive
than a sloth engorged with leaves hanging from a tree?
If sloths move at all, it is only to position themselves in the warm sun for an extended nap.
Coincidentally, wisteria will not bloom unless they are also positioned to soak up the sun.

So let's sum up:
Jefferson, a Virginian, investigated sloth bones with Wistar,
the man for whom the wisteria was named.
 In full sun, the wisteria hangs low, the sloth hangs high.
The humble wisteria blooms with bluish-purple blossoms,
the meek sloth's fur blooms with bluish-green algae.

It all forms an interesting pattern, this mix of human, flora, and fauna.
It makes one want to reflect on the connections further.
Perhaps while lazing in the Virginia sun after a heavy meal,
breathing in the wisteria's perfume.

No comments: