Edward Lear's fantastical flora

It is hardly to be expected that a Victorian English gentleman with a genius for inventing words like "scroobious," "pobblebockle," and "abibblebongibo" would not have discovered in the realm of botanical nomenclature and illustration an apt context for perpetrating even more "nonsense and bosh" on the eagerly awaiting world of the under-5 and the over-5. Moreover, this same man dreamed up a world in which "Bong trees," "runcible spoons," and "Quangle-Wangles" were perfectly absurd and normal.

His name was Edward Lear, and (more seriously) he was a landscape painter. Today he is still honored for both his wonderfully silly nonsense and for his paintings.

Now and then these two sides of Mr. Lear bumped merrily into each other. As when he named an early sketch of umbrellas in the rain in the English Lake District "Umbellifera" (a botanical term). Or when someone asked if a beech tree in one of his landscapes was a palm tree. As biographer Peter Levi writes, Lear "put on his soberest expression and assured them it was a Peruvian broccoli."

He became a very enthusiastic gardener. He knew plants well. But his "Nonsense Botany" testifies to an inability to take botanical Latin too solemnly. The drawings of his daft plants stem from their names, but some (like "Shoebootia Utilis" or even "Bottlephorkia Spoonifolia") bear an uncanny similarity to real plant forms. Others are descendants of the woodcuts in medieval herbals, where fantastical plants sometimes had human legs for roots or babies for flowers.

The charming preposterousness of some genuine plant names comes close to Lear. "Chenopodium bonus-henricus" for instance, or "Rosa spinosissima." But I'm not utterly distraught that "Nasticreechia Krorfuppia" is pure invention. Or is it?

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