Sandy’s Garden ... April and the Damascene

Sandy Simpson
Sandy Simpson

Here is a list of flowers made a long, long time ago.

“In April follow the double white violet; the wallflower; the stock-gilliflower; the cowslip; flowerdelices, and lilies of all natures; rosemary-flowers; the tulippa; the double peony; the pale daffodil; the French honeysuckle; the cherry-tree in blossom; the damsascene and plum-trees in blossom; the white thorn in leaf; the lilac-tree.” This list of the flowers that appear in April comes from an essay entitled Of Gardens, written in 1625 by Francis Bacon; and two words in this short extract take my fancy … ‘April’ and ‘damascene.’ Let’s start with April.

April is, in our calendar, the fourth month of the year. It was not always so and, in particular, was not so when this month acquired the name by which we know it. To the Romans whose empire spread across much of Europe, April was the second month in the calendar. And Wikipedia has this to say of April: “The Romans gave this month the Latin name Aprilis but the derivation of this name is uncertain. The traditional etymology is from the verb aperire, ‘to open’, in allusion to its being the season when trees and flowers begin to open. (But) as April was sacred to the goddess Venus, it has been suggested that Aprilis was originally her month, from her equivalent Greek goddess name Aphrodite.”

Now the Roman gods and goddesses Mars, Maia, Juno and Janus had months named after them; the originally-named Quintilis… Latin for fifth month (think ‘quins’) … was later renamed in honour of the Emperor Julius; Sextilis … the sixth month … was re-named in honour of the Emperor Augustus; September comes from septem, Latin for ‘seventh’; October from octem, Latin for ‘eighth’; novem means ‘ninth; decem means ‘tenth’; and February, the last month of the Roman year, took its name from the februare meaning ‘to purify’ … the festival of forgiveness of sins was on February 15th. That’s four months named after deities and six originally given numbers. And, since the Etruscans … who lost control of northern Italy to the Romans … called Aphrodite ‘Apru’, I’m sure April was named for her.

So we move on to the damascene, or Prunus domestica subspecies insititia to give it its proper botanical name … the plum tree (Prunus) which is cultivated (domestica) and formed by the process known as ‘grafting’ (insititia). But before Carl von Linné, otherwise Carl Linné or Carolus Linnaeus … to use the Latin version of his name … formalised the modern system of naming organisms called binomial nomenclature and gave the damascene the name Prunus domestica, that tree already had a Latin name, for the Romans had called it prunum damascenum, the ‘plum of Damascus.’ We know the tree as the ‘damson’ and it’s very easy to see where that name came from. Damson stones have been found in an excavation in York and dated to the late period of Anglo-Saxon England, which covers the tenth and first half of the eleventh centuries. One often-stated theory is that damsons were originally cultivated in the region of the ancient city of Damascus … the capital of Syria today … where they were found by the Romans and taken by them to other parts of their empire, including the British Isles, a theory given credibility by what have been identified as the apparent remnants of damsons during archaeological digs of Roman camps in England. However, recent research suggests that the damson may have evolved naturally as a hybrid of the sloe … Prunus spinosa … and another member of the plum family. Whatever, damsons were formerly much used in commercial jam-making in this country before changing tastes, the effect of Second World War sugar shortages and the high cost of British-grown fruit caused a steep decline. And we finish with a question. Is my tale of April and the damascene true or is it fake news bearing in mind that next Saturday is the first day of April 2017?