Spanish uses the word verbena in two ways, only one of which English shares. The Spanish-only verbena can be ‘a fair, a festival,’ as well as ‘an open-air dance engaged in during such a festival.’ A verbena may be associated with a saint, as is the Verbena de San Juan, whose celebration is described in the blog Detallets: Artesania i Disseny (which despite the Catalan title is written in Spanish). According to Maryna G., the author of that blog, “De los romanos es la costumbre de saltar por encima de las brasas tres veces para conseguir salud y felicidad.”

And that provides the etymologist a nice segue to Latin, in which language verbena meant ‘foliage, herbage; the leaves, twigs, and branches of laurel, olive, or myrtle, cypress, tamarisk; sacred boughs.’ The word traces farther back, to Indo-European *werb- or *werbh- ‘to turn, to bend,’ which is what foliage and herbage do. The Romans used such foliage in religious ceremonies, and that is most likely the source of the ‘festival in honor of a saint’ sense that verbena has in Spanish.

In the late Renaissance, when European botanists were busy categorizing every plant species they could find, Linnaeus, the categorizer-in-chief, chose Verbena officinalis to designate a species of flowering plant for which the Romans themselves had used the term verbena or verbenaca, even though it wasn’t the ‘laurel, olive, myrtle, cypress, tamarisk’ or other ‘sacred boughs’ that the word had originally described. (The practice of recycling words is hardly something new: using the name of a little rodent to designate a device that moves the pointer on a computer screen is a recent example of that ancient tradition.)

Botanists have determined that only a few species of verbena are native to Europe, but there are some 200 in North and South America. One that is common throughout the Great Plains that cover much of the center of North America is prairie verbena, Glandularia bipinnatifida. It grows as far south as central Texas, where I live, and is flourishing now even though months of little rain have made the spring of 2011 a relatively poor season for wildflowers in a region renowned for them. But I’ll propose to my conciudadanos that we celebrate the floral delights that we do have here this spring, and in the process create a verbena de verbena. My relevant bit of reverence is to have lain on the ground yesterday to take a series of celebratory photographs of a dense colony of those flowers; may the following photograph of verbena reverberate in your memory.

A colony of prairie verbena (Glandularia bipinnatifida) in Round Rock, Texas

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman

3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: reverberate « Spanish-English Word Connections
  2. Trackback: vervain « Spanish-English Word Connections
  3. Trackback: Another Beginning « Portraits of Wildflowers

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©2011–2018 Steven Schwartzman

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