#76 Pyrus Japonica



Pyrus (Pieris) Japonica

(Including a note on Woolf’s Use of Scientific Nomenclature)


Pieris jap. at Volunteer Park, Seattle WA

Pieris Japonica, aka. Andromeda japonica, is an evergreen shrub in the Ericaceae or Heather family, native to Japan and China. Reaching up to 9-12 feet tall, its most prominent feature is the drooping racemes or clusters of tiny flowers, shaped something like miniature lanterns, which cascade from its stems in mid-Spring. These are followed throughout the summer and fall with rows of beadlike fruits. Since it flourishes in similar soil conditions to rhododendrons and azaleas, it is recommended as a companion plant in gardening books of the 1930’s (See Ellis, 977 and Robinson, 568).[1]


Woolf only mentions the shrub once, in her comic tribute to her gardening friend Violet Dickinson, Friendship’s Gallery, written (in purple ink) in 1907. Her reference to Violet’s encounter with a knowledgeable if crusty old gardener who “was dogmatic on the grafting of Pyrus Japonica, and contradicted the lady flatly without apology on the matter of Cyrus Asiastica” is typical of the young Virginia’s teasing attitude towards Dickinson’s semi-professional gardening interests. (Violet was friends with both William Robinson and Gertrude Jeykll.) “Pyrus” is misspelled (both Ellis and Robinson spell it Pieris”), and as far as I can tell “Cyrus Asiatica does” not exist.[2] 


This glancing, humorous, half-invented reference to scientific nomenclature is, however, also typical of Woolf’s somewhat sarcastic attitude towards botany and botanizing.  We know from the Hyde Park Gate News, the Stephen children’s family newspaper, as well as from Virginia’s childhood journals, collected in A Passionate Apprentice, that her father, Leslie Stephens was an enthusiastic botanizer.  On July 18th 1892, the domestic newspaper reports from St. Ives that he was “pressing plants to put in an album” and “encouraging his children to learn the different tribes of plants and the different names” (HPGN 83-4), and five years later, the young Virginia reports from Painswick in Gloucestershire that she “botanized with father”while her siblings played tennis (PA 118).


A kind of sardonic resistance towards pedantic authority underlies Woolf’s later parodic uses of Latin naming conventions.  In a September 1922 letter to Barbara Bagenel, she jokingly refers to a species of dahlia named “Chickybiddienses Bagealia”  -- a joke name, invented, according to the editors, after Barbara identified some yellow flowers as “Tropaeolum Carnaryrnsis” (L2 558, n.1). (One of the group of women studying at the Slade whom Virginia christened “cropheads,” Barbara had a husband, Nicholas Bagenel, who became a horticulturist after  WWI was over [Hussey AtoZ,  12].)  Years later, in a lightly humorous appreciation of the eighteenth-century rural poet George Crabbe, Woolf cannot resist mentioning his unheralded discovery of an obscure ground cover with the rather amusing name of  “Trifolium suffocatum,” now colloquially referred to as “suffocated clover” (E6, 486).[3]





[1] For information on Pieris Japonica, also see Wikipedia and the Missouri Botanical Garden website  http://www.missouribotanicalgarden.org/PlantFinder/PlantFinderDetails.aspx?kempercode=e680  (Accessed June 23, 2021)


[2] There is a South African hybrid form of Brussells Sprouts called Cyrus, but since it is described as suitable for mechanical harvest, I suspect it was developed long after 1907. https://www.syngenta.co.za/products/seeds/vegetables/brussels-sprouts/cyrus (Accessed June 24, 20121)


[3] For information on Trifolium suffocatum, see An Atlas of the British and Irish Flora https://www.brc.ac.uk/plantatlas/plant/trifolium-suffocatum  and


(Both accessed June 24, 2021)



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About 98 Flowers

Welcome to the Virginia Woolf Herbarium.  For many years I have been researching and writing about Virginia Woolf and parks, gardens, and fl...