The fairy fan-flower

From Benita Bendon Campbell yesterday, a delightful plant, new to her, that had just come into her life. Her photo:

(#1) A white Scaevola aemula cultivar, in a hanging pot; the plant grows as a garden shrub, but hangs or drapes quite satisfyingly, as here

The scaevola plant was new to me as well; it was hard to believe that I’d never come across a plant whose common name is fairy fan-flower and has cultivars that are intensely purplish-blue:

(#2) Up close like this, you can see why they’re called fan-flowers — note the five petals in a fan; and fairy because the flowers are small (consider the fairy penguin) (photo: The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova)

Possible connotations of fairy fan-flower. Fans are, of course, the central props in fan dancing, a form of erotic dancing in which the nudity of the performer is (partly) concealed by the use of large fans. Conventionally, the performers are female, but male fan dancers performing for a female audience is now definitely a thing. And there are also male fan dancers performing for a (gay) male audience; conventionally, these men-for-men erotic dancers are sturdily (but amiably) masculine and tend to be adept at strategically failing to conceal their large erect penises while they bump and grind energetically. (Give the audience what they want / need. ) With a subgenre in which the normative masculinity of the performers is subverted by conventionally effeminate gestures and then by flat-out drag (a naked man can get a lot of drag-queen mileage out of, among other things, beautiful long hair, stunning makeup, and high heels — plus some fans, or balloons, or whatever). So: a flamboyantly fem guy doing a fan striptease — a fairy fan dancer. In botanical form in #2 .

Yeah, yeah, what about the plants? Basic information from Wikipedia:

Scaevola aemula, commonly known as the fairy fan-flower or common fan-flower, is a species of flowering plant in the family Goodeniaceae. It has mostly egg-shaped leaves and blue, mauve or white fan-shaped flowers. It grows in New South Wales, South Australia and Victoria.

There’s some practical information on The Spruce website’s “How to Grow and Care for Fan Flower (Scaevola)”.

Not only is this species and its genus, Scaevola, new on this website, so is the whole damn family. From Wikipedia:

Goodeniaceae is a family of flowering plants in the order Asterales. It contains about 404 species in twelve genera. The family is distributed mostly in Australia, except for the genus Scaevola, which is pantropical [AZ: pantropical, lovely word, worthy of mantrization, in two metrical feet: pán… trópical: SR SWW. Repeat as needed.]. Its species are found across most of Australia, being especially common in arid and semi-arid climates.

The 12 genera: Anthotium, Brunonia, Coopernookia. Dampiera, Diaspasis, Goodenia, Lechenaultia, Pentaptilon, Scaevola, Selliera, Velleia, Verreauxia. (I thought that Brunonia had come up here before, but no. I do have a friend and linguistics colleague Bruno Estigarribia, who’s turned up here several times, so that’s probably what I was thinking of. Alas, there is no Brunonia estigarribiae endemic to the dry Argentine pampas.)

And how do you pronounce it? Botanical Latin pronunciation is a giant mess; different botanists will tell me firmly that some name is pronounced one way, and another will insist on something quite different, and neither of those realizations of orthography in phonology fits with the “Ciceronian” pronunciation I was taught in Latin classes 70 years ago or with the “ecclesiastical” pronunciation of the Roman Catholic Church.

So, for what it’s worth, net sources say that scaevola is pronounced either /sívǝlǝ/ or /sɪvólǝ/; I would have guessed at /sáj/ for the first syllable, but what do I know? (Probably there are people with /ɛ/ in the first syllable. Probably there are people with initial /š/ instead of /s/, and maybe some with initial /sk/.

The only net source I found with an opinion on the subject said that aemula is pronounced /ímjǝlǝ/ (with first syllable rhyming with seem, team, etc.), which might indeed be what botanists say to one another.

And where does it come from? The easy part of this is in the Latin adjectives scaevola and aemula:

scaevola Lat. ‘left-handed’

aemula Lat. fem. of aemulus ‘striving to equal or excel, rivaling’, or in a bad sense ‘envious, jealous’

But why left-handed? Why rivaling? Someone once saw in the flowers, or other parts of the plants, something left-handed (or possibly inept, or sinister) and something striving towards or rivaling something else. There are stories there, but my resources, my abilities, and the time I have available to ferret the stories out aren’t up to the task.

An oddball bonus. When Bonnie wrote me about her lovely new plant, it occurred to me that she might not want to have the information attributed to her (she was merely the vehicle), so I considered describing #1 as a contribution from a friend, Madame X (Bonnie had a long career as a teacher of French and is well embedded in the French language and French culture). My associative mind then took me to

The Fan-Flowers of Madame de …

where Madame de … is the elliptical variant of Madame X, referring to a Frenchwoman whose surname is being concealed — an expression made famous as the title of an extraordinary French film, which appeared in English as

The Earrings of Madame de …

The Wikipedia entry has the basic information:

(#3) French theatrical poster for the film

The Earrings of Madame de… [French title: Madame de …] … is a 1953 romantic drama film directed by Max Ophüls, adapted from Louise Lévêque de Vilmorin’s 1951 novel by Ophüls, Marcel Archard and Annette Wadement. The film is considered a masterpiece of the 1950s French cinema.

The Wikipedia entry goes on to detail the remarkably intricate plot, in which Madame X’s earrings travel around from hand to hand; I think six people are involved, and four of them are Madame, her husband, her husband’s mistress, and Madame’s lover. But it’s Madame’s story, and she deserves to be in the title.

Meanwhile, back in the US of A (Bonnie outside of Denver, me in Palo Alto), Bonnie was fine with being mentioned by name — indeed discovered that she’s googleable entirely by virtue of my repeated references to her!

And that’s the fairy fan-floral news from the Bay Area.


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