#81 Sea Holly

Sea Holly

My own private sea holly

Sea Holly, or Eryngium maritimum, is one of over two hundred species of a genus belong to the carrot family, Apiaceae, all of which have a base of spiny foliage out of which rise cone-shaped flowers or umbrels surrounded by spiky bracts, which resemble thistles (Hogan 559). Blooming in the summer in dry or sandy soil, they are often a blue or silvery gray with a pronounced metallic sheen. Some varieties turn a vivid purple as they age before fading back to silver. [1] The common name “sea holly” refers to the spiky quality of the flowers and foliage (Folkard 174), both of which are "everlasting" and can be used to add textural interest to dried flower arrangements.


The uses and meanings of eryngium are various. In his study of plant lore, Folkard notes that it was reputed to ensure the fidelity of a husband if worn by a young woman (174), and yet an allusion to “eringoes” in Shakespeare”s Merry Wives of Windsor suggests they were also seen as an aphrodisiac; calling for “a tempest of provocation” Falstaff fancifully suggests:

Let the sky rain potatoes;
let it thunder to the tune of Green-sleeves,
hail kissing-comfits and snow eryngoes. (Act V, v, ll. 19-22)


As Ellacomb explains in his book on Shakespeare’s use of plants, the candied roots of sea holly were a favorite Elizabethan confection (89); Folkard says that the sugared roots were called “kissing comfits,” although one doesn’t know if this information was derived from or explicates the Shakespearean text (174). Several websites assert that, in the language of flowers, sea holly was considered a “symbol of admiration,”[2] and a website on The Language of Flowers suggests it meant “Independence, severity, and attraction,”[3] but neither Kate Greenaway nor Beverly Seaton list either erygium or sea holly in their compilations of flower vocabularies. The connection between sea holly and admiration may be explained by the fact that, according to Greenaway at least, Amethyst was paired with Admiration (8)-- though I know of no flower named Amethyst.


Never mentioned in her life-writing or her essays, sea holly does, however, have some prominence in Woolf’s fiction, appearing both in Jacob’s Room and repeatedly (six times) in The Waves. Always associated with the beach and the sea and by biographical inference with childhood summers in Cornwall, its significance seems to be allied with its martial appearance as a kind of emblem of armored persistence, sometimes aligned with or against death. In Jacob’s Room, the memento mori of a sheep’s skull devoid of its jaw lying on the sand and foreshadowing Jacob’s death is emphasized by imagining the branch of sea holly which will grow through its eye-sockets like a sword piercing its brain: “Clean, white, wind-swept, sand-rubbed, a more unpolluted piece of bone existed nowhere on the coast of Cornwall. The sea holly would grow through the eye-sockets; it would turn to powder, or some golfer, hitting his ball one fine day, would disperse a little dust” (7).[4] [5]The sea holly is the first in a series of mostly wild flowers and fruits with phallic spikes or spires, often composite, usually purple, -- including blackberries, a purple aster, lilacs, marsh orchids, purple clover, teasles, foxglove, and heliotrope -- which appear like nature’s elegiac pastoral army, marching through the first chapters of novel.[6]


In The Waves, Woolf continues to emphasize the military quality of sea holly, now associating it with a kind of persistent autonomy standing against the gradual wearing down of life’s inevitable cycles. The vivid, thistle-like plant appears regularly throughout the novel: in the second, third, and seventh Interludes, in the fourth episode, and twice in Bernard’s summation. The first two times it is explicitly seen on the beach, first centered in a circle of water: “Blue waves, green waves swept a quick fan over the beach, circling the spike of sea-holly and leaving shallow pools of light here and there on the sand” (19). In the next Interlude the emphasis is on the armor-like qualities of the “spike,” as the geometry turns linear: “The sun rose. Bars of yellow and green fell on the shore, gilding the ribs of the eaten-out boat and making the sea-holly and its mailed leaves gleam blue as steel” (52). 


Arriving at Hampton Court for Percival’s farewell dinner party, Rhoda incorporates the beach imagery of these Interludes, identifying herself with the evanescent foam instead of the stalwart sea holly: “And I have no face. I am like the foam that races over the beach or the moonlight that falls arrowlike here on a tin can, here on a spike of the mailed sea holly or a bone or a half-eaten boat” (94). The sea holly here is both spiked and mailed, compared to the metallic tin can and the cadaverous boat as well as the bone from Jacob’s Room. Rhoda’s sense of perilous foam seems to influence the fate of the holly in the seventh Interlude which introduces an Episode focused on the losses of middle age:

The sun had now sunk lower in the sky. The islands of cloud had gained in density and drew themselves across the sun so that the rocks went suddenly black, and the trembling sea holly lost its blue and turned silver, and shadows were blown like grey cloths over the sea. (132)

Having shed its protective armor, the sea holly now trembles in the wind, like the purple aster in Jacob’s Room which foretells Jacob’s fate (JR 10).


Proceeding from this state of vulnerability, Bernard’s summation gradually restores a sense of the sea holly’s independence.  At a point just after his recollection of the death of Percival, Bernard, like Rhoda, identifies with the waves rather than the holly: “Sitting alone, it seems we are spent; our waters can only just surround feebly that spike of sea-holly; we cannot reach that further pebble so as to wet it. It is over, we are ended” (198). Although the friends are bereft and sapped of strength, the sea holly is again a spike.  As the summation moves through its cyclical rhythms of loss and recovery, Bernard’s narration begins to merge with the imagery of the Interludes, and he moves towards a final affirmation in which the sea holly is surrounded by water but maintains it integrity:

Day rises; the girl lifts the watery fire-hearted jewels to her brow; the sun levels his beams straight at the sleeping house; the waves deepen their bars; they fling themselves on shore; back blows the spray; sweeping their waters they surround the boat and the sea-holly (216). 

Evoking the woman raising the lamp from the first Interlude (3) and the bars of light and the boat from the third, this passage restores the sea holly’s presence, anticipating the rising wave and the spear couched against death with which the novel ends. Extending through two novels and several drafts, the image of the sea holly on the beach accompanied by or poised against the bones of a sheep or the ribs of a boat seems to be one of Woolf’s most indelible floral memories, exhibiting a heroic independence that is much to be admired. [7]


[1] For vivid description of the colors of sea holly see https://www.thespruce.com/grow-sea-holly-eryngium-4121081 Accessed January 29, 2022.


[2] Quotation from the Breck’s Bulbs website: https://www.brecks.com/blog/all-about-the-sea-holly Accessed January 29, 2022.  This identification is repeated in the Wikipedia entry: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eryngium. Accessed January 28, 2022. 

[3] See https://languageofflowers.com/ Accessed January 29, 2022

[4]  In the holograph MS, the toothed jawbone of a sheep is found rather than the skull, and there is no sea holly (JRHD 4); curiously, the jawbone has been brought home at the end of first chapter in the published version (JR 11). In both MS and published version, the sheep’s jaw reappears as a assertion of autonomy after dinner with the Plumers in Cambridge (JRHD 33; JR 34)

[5] The mention of golf suggests a specific location for the sheep’s skull. The West Cornwall Golf Club was established in 1889 on the Hayle Estuary at Lelant, one of the places Woolf mentions visiting frequently in her autobiographical “A Sketch of the Past” (MOB 127).  See https://www.stives-cornwall.co.uk/golfing/ for some history and spectacular photographs of the course. Accessed January 31, 2022.

[6]  See my short summary of flowers in Jacob’s Room in “Everything Tended” (pp. 48-9), or my longer essay on “Floral Versions of the Pastoral in Jacob’s Room.” (Published in Brazil. Email me for copy.)


[7] Perusal of the holograph drafts of The Waves shows that the sea holly was in Woolf’s mind from the beginning of her composition.  Only ten pages into the first holograph draft there is a beach scene “in a sandy waste” where “the ribs of some old boat. . . eaten out like the ribs of a sheep” is punctuated by the “wild sea holly. . . speared. . . steely blue” combining elements of the scene in Jacob’s Room with those in the first Interludes of The Waves (TW2HD, 100; edited by me to remove all deletions). When, at the end of her writing process, Woolf began to craft the Interludes, the sea holly is retained (TW2HD 745). This is rather atypical as Woolf tends to add repeating flower elements late, often after the holograph draft (as in the three asters in Jacob’s Room).  I have yet to explore the intervening 735 pages of the The Waves holographs to track all the sea holly references.

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