Spring Song

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.

Comments always are welcome.

47 thoughts on “Spring Song

  1. Your use of the word basal couldn’t help reminding me of another herb in the mint family.
    What stood out to me on the museum page you linked to is that it doesn’t say where Aydin and Tralleis are. You presumably looked the places up because you tell us they’re in Turkey. The Greek writing on the stone confirms that the western coast of what is now Turkey was part of the ancient Greek world. The words of the song tell us that carpe diem goes back many thousands of diems.

    1. I was surprised to learn how large the mint family is, and how many unexpected plants belong there. Teak trees are part of the family — I never would have expected that. If only I could make a mint working on teak!

      Here’s the link to one page that has additional information about the stele and its history. It’s so delightfully human. One line of text was lost when the bottom of the stele was cut and ground, to level it and make it more suitable as a plant stand. I noticed that the author of the linked article agrees with you; as he put it, “The lyrical message is your basic carpe diem.”

    2. Look what I just found in the American Heritage Dictionary — a second definition for ‘stele’: “The primary vascular tissue in the stem or root of a vascular plant, consisting of the xylem and phloem together with supporting tissues, such as pith.” At least etymologically, the lyreleaf’s stem and Seikilos’s grave marker have something in common.

  2. This is a pretty shade of lilac. I don’t think I’ve seen one of these plants before, and I’m always interested in observing the differences between our regions. From this photo, I’m not seeing its resemblance to a lyre — looks more trumpet-like to me — but maybe I’m just not looking close enough!

    1. Some sages also are known as salvia; that may be a name that’s more familiar to you. It’s the leaves that are lyre-shaped — like these. I should have added a photo of the leaves, but I was headed down a different track and didn’t think of it. If I’d had a decent photo of the leaves, I might have thought about it: or not!

      1. Oh, of course I’m familiar with salvia — but the varieties we have show up in brilliant reds, deep blues, or darker purple. Thanks for the link — a picture explains things way better!

  3. The perennial salvias are beautiful, hardy plants and that photo of the lyre-leaf bloom spike reminds me how much they can dress up a native plant display. Every spring I get the urge to plant some in our yard but I know from experience that I’d just be planting deer food. A blend of salvias will be one of the first things we put out if we ever install a fence.

    And that song is haunting, both for its ethereal tones and what it reminds us all of. It’s somehow poetic, ironic, and appropriate that the stele was being used as a flower pot stand.

    1. I’ve seen lyreleaf sage described as ‘moderately deer resistant,’ but we know what that means: they might dally for a week before either pawing it to death or chowing down. I did read that it makes a good lawn substitute because it tolerates mowing. I can’t quite get my mind around why anyone would want to mow it, but to each his own.

      I could have gone on at length about the history of the stele. Another tidbit worth mentioning is that a line of text was damaged when the bottom was cut and ground flat. Antique or not, a plant stand needs to be level!

    1. The first thing I remember learning about the mint family is that its members have square stems. Not all do, of course, but it’s a place to start. On the other hand, teak trees are in the Lamiaceae, and I don’t think their trunks are square. I need to find someone to explain teak taxonomy to me. Apparently there are some vines in the family, too. It’s huge — I read there are 236 genera and around 7,000 species. Even allowing for a little adjustment of the numbers one way or the other, that’s huge.

  4. Thanks for including the music & song. Very medieval-sounding and really quite lovely. Almost haunting in its beauty.

    1. There are plenty of versions of the song online, but many have additional instruments, musical embellishments, and modern interpretations. I liked this one because I sense it’s closer to what the original would have been. The use of the bells and the string interlude are especially interesting. I can’t help but wonder what of ours will survive for another 2,000 years, and what people of the future will think of it. I hope they can find something as dignified and beautiful.

    1. One thing I’ve become aware of since getting interested in native plants is how much of our history and culture is contained in their names. The lyre’s a good example. It’s such an integral part of Greek mythology that it pops up even in the heavens. There’s a constellation named Lyra; the story is that Orpheus’s lyre was carried to heaven by the Greek Muses, who placed it among the stars.The meteor shower that originates in that constellation still is called the Lyrids, and this year they’ll peak around April 21–22. Mark your calendar!

  5. A favorite spring perennial in my garden, mine aren’t anywhere near blooming! After they bloom, I’ve seen migrating Painted Buntings enjoying the seeds!

    1. I found even more patches of them along the roadside this weekend. I suspect that heat from heavily traveled roadways plays a role in their early bloom, but it can’t be just that. In one of the small towns where they’re most abundant, there’s little mowing of vacant lots, and not a lot of attention seems to be paid to lawn care. For a native flower, that’s all to the good.

  6. Are you sure you’re not a closet botanist? And that’s quite an eclectic association with The Epitaph of Seikilos, which I’d never heard of. Quite the Renaissance woman (who’s probably glad she didn’t live during the Renaissance.)

    1. I’m far from a botanist, but whatever I am, I’m not closeted. I suppose I’m a sort-of-botanist-wanna-be. I like learning the names and characteristics of plants, and which families they belong to, but there’s a certain point where my eyes glaze over and I revert to descriptions like, “Oh! Pretty flower!” To be honest, it’s the beauty that I enjoy the most.

      As for associating lyreleaf sage with the lyre of Sekilos — that’s just my weird brain at work. Sometimes I keep my associations to myself, and sometimes they seem good enough to share: like this one.

    1. It is a lovely flower. It’s not particularly splashy, and most of the time the stems are relatively straight, so finding this fully-flowered curve was delightful. It occurs to me that singer/songwriters have been around for a long, long time.

    1. It can be easy to forget that the most important human qualities were present even in ancient societies. We may have video games and online ordering, but love is love, and the music of Seikilos still can touch us.

      Salvias/sages are beautiful. I’m not surprised you have a few in your garden — or perhaps many! From what I’ve heard, they’re relatively hardy and carefree, which always is a plus.

  7. Oooh, that song was haunting – sent shivers down my spine! (Good ones.) The sages are lovely and this one is a very pretty blue. I have several in the garden and, as you say, the bees really like them.

    1. There’s so much power in a single human voice. Combine it with the simplest of instruments, and it is memorable. I did have to laugh at the story of the stele turned flowerpot holder turned museum piece. It’s a story straight out of Antiques Roadshow: “I just noticed these old inscriptions on this old thing of my wife’s, and wondered if you might know what they mean…”

      1. It’s strange to think of something so historically significant being used in such a mundane way – and what a surprise it must have been!

    1. There are slight variations in the translation of the words, and there’s apparently still a bit of quibbling among musicologists about this or that, but what we have surely is very close to what it was when Seikilos composed it. It is amazing, and quite haunting. When I first heard it, it took me a minute to realize that the scale is different from what we’re accustomed to. Major and minor keys as we understand them hadn’t been invented yet, so the sound is both familiar and unfamiliar.

    1. This may be the most attractive example of the plant that I’ve found. The curved stem really appealed. As for the music, it is haunting. Part of it’s the sound, and part of it — for me — is hearing an expression of love and grief so poignant that it crosses millennia.

    1. Not all hauntings are bad, and the word certainly fits here. I wonder what Seikilos would think of the journey his stele has taken, or of the fact that a plant now bears the name of his lyre. The connections that develop through history are fascinating.

  8. Just spent the last week in Arkansas and coming back down south yesterday it was uplifting to see these lighting up the fields in east Texas. Ahhh, spring!

    1. I was watching your posts on iNaturalist, and figured out that you’d made a run north. Lucky you! I’ve been trying to tamp down my wanderlust, since it’s clear that it’s still a little early, but the way things are beginning to pop out, it’s going to be a fine line to walk. Wait too long, and spring’s going to be gone.

      The interesting thing down here has been the number of burns taking place. There have been some huge ones, and while I’ve not been able to pinpoint them all, the Nash has been burned, and portions of Brazoria. There was an enormous burn near Palacios on Sunday. It’s always interesting to see how quickly they burn out — a result of good planning, no doubt. Someone said that land managers are taking advantage of good weather to get rid of a lot of

    1. I’ve seen lawns where this sage has been used as a ground cover, and it really does work. Once the plant stops blooming, the leaves remain, and their purple/green combination is quite nice. I don’t know what I thought early Greek music would have sounded like, but this wasn’t it. The most interesting thing I learned is that at the time of Seikilos, major and minor keys hadn’t been invented. I need a music history class!

  9. I have a cousin who lives in that Santa Fe. That flower reminds me of the henbit that’s all over my front yard. I see no point in rooting it all out to replace it with Bermuda, which doesn’t have pretty purple blooms. I belong to the live and let live school of gardening. . .

    1. I saw henbit in a couple of places last week. Like lyreleaf sage, it can be used as a groundcover,and while some people say “Oh, yuck. Weed!”, I think it’s attractive. Apparently herbalists use both henbit and lyreleaf sage for various concoctions.

  10. A very lovely flower and it is fun to imagine the music the wind might play on those lyre strings. The story of the stele is reminiscent of so many similar. Folks who have come into some item of utility but are unaware that it also has historic value. And then there are ghost paintings that sometimes hide a masterpiece behind the visible painting.

    Tempus fugit…live for today.

    1. Here’s something else I’ve learned since writing the post. ‘Stele’ is not only the word for this kind of grave marker. The American Heritage Dictionary also defines the word as a botanical term: “The primary vascular tissue in the stem or root of a vascular plant, consisting of the xylem and phloem together with supporting tissues, such as pith.” At least etymologically speaking, the lyreleaf sage and the grave marker are more closely associated than I imagined.

  11. I’ve listened to various surviving bits of ancient music, none as old as this, and wasn’t anticipating anything this beautiful. I hope the archaeologist turn up more songs and tunes, they give such a different impression of the world back then, and even some insight into people’s lives.

    1. I’ve been trying to unearth the song this reminds me of, and I finally succeeded. It’s “Na Laetha Geal M’òige” from Enya. I have it on her Watermark album.

      Roughly, the translation is:

      “Looking back over my youth,
      I was content,
      Without knowledge of death
      I was young, without time.
      Now I’m sorrowful,
      Those days are long past.
      Alas and woe, oh.

      The bright days of my youth
      They were full of hope
      The great journey that was before me then
      Was what was destined to be – farewell.
      Now I’m sorrowful,
      Those days are long past.
      Alas and woe, oh.

      The bright days of my youth
      They were full of hope
      The great journey that was before me then
      Was what was destined to be – farewell.
      Now I am sorrowful,
      Those days are long past.
      Alas and woe, oh.'”

    1. Today, I found even more of these flowers blooming. They were in a ditch behind an auto parts store. Obviously, they don’t require special care! The more I’ve read about the vines, trees, and flowers that are part of the mint family, the more amazed I become. I don’t understand at all how the decisions about inclusion/exclusion are made, but they sure are interesting. Teak trees are in the mint family!

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