Part of the Lamiaceae, or mint family, lyre-leaf sage grows from a small basal rosette of dark green leaves. Oval and somewhat hairy, the leaves eventually develop purple stems, edges, and veins, as well as deep lobes suggesting the shape of the musical instrument known as the lyre. In 1753, that resemblance led Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus to name the plant Salvia lyrata.
The plant also develops square, hairy stalks from one to three feet tall. Essentially leafless, the stalks fill with buds which go on to bloom from the bottom to the top, attracting a wide range of bees and butterflies with their nectar. Sometimes a single plant produces multiple stems, and while the stems aren’t framed by the leaves, it still can be fun to imagine them as the ‘strings’ of a lyre.
Last week, when I found this plant along a roadside near Santa Fe, Texas, the curved and visually pleasing stem also suggested a plucked lyre string; it reminded me of The Epitaph of Seikilos — the oldest complete musical composition in existence.
Engraved on a stele (or gravestone) almost two millennia ago in the town of Tralles, near modern-day Aydin in Turkey, it is signed from Seikilos to Euterpe, who may have been his wife. Discovered in 1883, the stele passed from hand to hand for years, until it was reclaimed from an owner who was using it as a pedestal for a flower pot. Today, it resides in the National Museum of Denmark.
Signs and symbols included on the stele indicate the melody, which musicologists have transcribed into modern notation. Here, one translation of the words, combined with the sound of the lyre, recall love’s flowering.
While you’re alive, shine;
never let your mood decline.
We’ve a brief span of life to spend;
Time necessitates an end.