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On the quest for botanical detail.

Summary: What with all the political debate going on at the moment, and what with the sudden proliferation of campaign literature that is as enduring as a picked poppy flower, a few words on Egyptian flora might be a welcome distraction and digression.

By Simon Willis - The Egyptian Gazette At this time of the year, the urban landscape is bursting with colour, especially since the Heliopolis powers that be have embarked on another beautification project, which entails improving pedestrian walkways and planting shrubs and laying flower beds.

On wishing to find out more about the blooms with a view to domestic cultivation and adding a splash of colour on the balcony - not to mention hiding that ghastly barbecue thingy and decaying mops that had once been stationed like ragged sentinels to dry off in the sunshine - one finds oneself up a dead-end street.

Now, one would think with all this Internet hocus-pocus, you should be able to unearth any information you require. Ha! Not so, comrades knocking on the gates of cyberspace.

Botanical studies in this neck of the wood give rise to a Catch 22 situation: you have to know the name of the plant in order to learn more. Otherwise, no name, no gain and a slight pain in the arm. Still, you may know the name of a plant, but know nothing about it. Fine. Internet to the rescue, then.

What about 'hantal'? This writer looked it up more than three decades ago in his trusty 'Hava' Arabic-English dictionary and found 'colocynth', i.e. none the wiser.

Thanks to the miracle of electronics and silicon, one finds that "Citrullus colocynthis, commonly known as the colocynth, bitter apple, bitter cucumber, egusi, or vine of Sodom (I beg your pardon!) is a viny plant native to the Mediterranean Basin and Asia, especially Turkey (especially in regions such as Izmir), Nubia, and Trieste. It originally bore the scientific name Colocynthis citrullus, but is now classified as Citrullus colocynthis." Yeah, yeah. Thank you Wikipedia. Now geddof!

The fruit of the colocynth is said to be used as a strong laxative. In overdoses, the fruit can cause violent, sharp pains in the bowels, with dangerous inflammation. That's all we need! No more reference to ailments, please.

Ah! This looks promising. The characteristic small seed of the colocynth have been found in several early archeological sites in northern Africa and the Near East, specifically at Neolithic Armant, Nagada in Egypt at sites dating from 3800BC.

Hrrumph! That's all very well, but what does this flaming colocynth look like?

"Lozenges, made of colocynth were called "troches of alhandal".

They were prepared by cutting the colocynth to a small size, and reducing it to a fine powder in a mortar, rubbed with oil of sweet almonds; adding gum tragacanth, and mastic afterwards. So what? Even if there was a picture, might we recognise this botanical marvel if we tripped over it? How does one cope with this deluge of information? Give instruction to a wise man and he will be yet wiser (Proverbs 9:9).

Give a man access to the Internet and he will forget what he was looking for.

Stuff the colocynth, then. Who cares? Hibiscus, then.

Not only do you drink this to raise or lower blood pressure and open up trendy-sounding shops in pretentious London and Los Angeles suburbs, you know what this flower looks like.

Hibiscus is a genus of flowering plants in the mallow family, Malvaceae, comprising several hundred species native to warm-temperate, subtropical and tropical regions.

Member species are often noted for their showy flowers and are commonly known as hibiscus, sorrel, and flor de Jamaica, or less widely known as rosemallow.

The generic name is derived from the Greek word 'hibiskos', which was the name Pedanius Dioscorides (ca. 40-90) gave to Althaea officinalis.

This should open an interesting avenue of research. On to Pedanius Dioscorides, a Greek physician, pharmacologist and botanist as well as the author of De Materia Medica - a five-volume encyclopaedia about herbal medicine and related medicinal substances that was widely read for more than 1,500 years. Fantastic. Looks better.

"The earliest surviving records of illustrated Greek Herbals indicate De Materia Medica was widely read and reproduced during the Middle Ages in Latin, Arabic and Greek." OK, where is the Arabic version? Conspicuous by its absence.

Let's settle for this work in English, shall we? Can it be downloaded in PDF? Apparently, yes....Aw! You've got to sign up for it, which means you will have to submit your bank details and end up with no money in your account, thus forcing you to sell tissues at the crossroads of Orouba and Thawra Streets, and nicking hibiscus flowers from people's gardens.

Even if one is prepared to hold one's nose and risk the disclosure of one's details for the sake of downloading this five-volume encyclopaedia, you will be no better off because "[T]he earliest copies of Dioscorides' manuscript were not illustrated.

The oldest survival is a fragment, the Michigan Papyrus.

The finest surviving comprehensive manuscript copy, magnificently illustrated, was made in the sixth century in Constantinople (about 512AD) and is known as Codex Vindobonensis.

The citizens of Honoratae, a suburb of Byzantium in Turkey, presented it as a birthday gift to their Christian patroness Patricia Juliana Anicia, daughter of Flavius Anicius Olybrius, Emperor of the West briefly in 472CE."

Blah-blah-blah! One can bet that when Patricia opened up the book, she might have exclaimed, "Ooh! Where are the pictures? What's the point in a book without pix?"

The hibiscus flower can universally mean that it is a nice summer. Today, one can, therefore, send a bouquet of hibiscus to wish someone a nice summer.

This superbly exemplifies the Egyptian proverb 'yifassir il-mayya bi-l-mayya' (Explain water with water). Reminiscent of the feats of verbal legerdemain on television chat shows, methinks.

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Publication:The Egyptian Gazette (Cairo, Egypt)
Date:May 17, 2012
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