pierre laszlo

Muscari neglectum (Hyacinthaceae)

Plant of the month (©Pierre Laszlo, all rights reserved)

Muscari neglectum (Hyacinthaceae), aka the grape hyacinth.

Plants are wily. They seduce some animal species to collaborate in their strategy of multiplication and spread. They employ tactics of attire and perfume. I shall present these ploys in the example of the grape hyacinth and its pollination by bees.

This perennial bulbous plant is endemic to Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Iran and in the Mediterranean regions of Europe and North Africa. Four to six 40 cm-long narrow leaves emerge from the bulb. This plant has such  vigorous growth that plantlets can be regenerated from protoplasts-derived embryogenic calluses —lumps of unorganized parenchymatous cells — obtained from bulb culture.

Grape hyacinth is readily recognized from its spikes of dense, usually blue, urn-shaped flowers. These flowers, 0.4-0.8 cm-long, have a deep and attractive color, dark blue —turning to black upon aging — with white lobes at the tips. In some regions of Italy, a traditional use of the flowers during Holy Week was to dye Easter eggs with the blueish-purple color.

Their equally enticing scent is often likened to that of starch or plums. Or musk? The name ‟muscari‟ indeed comes from the Greek name, moschos, for musk. This scent, given off in the early spring when few other flowers are in bloom, has β-ocimene as one of its components. This molecule, from the class of monoterpenes, has a defensive function against herbivore predators. Conversely, the muscari smell powerfully attracts bees.

Since the flowers secrete an abundance of nectar, to such an extent as to have been nicknamed ‟nectar gas-stations,‟ they are very useful to bees in spring. Hunters-gatherers probably noticed this property.

The bulb is edible and it contains pharmacologically-active chemicals, in addition to comisic acid, with its saponin-like activity. One can conjecture early domestication, during prehistoric times. Is it too daring to hypothesize that such a useful plant, to early apiculture most notably, may have been as beneficial, in those early times, as some of our more familiar foodstuffs?

Mankind has prized the Muscari colorful and aromatic flowers for millennia. As evidence, consider the entombment of a Neanderthal, possibly a chief, about 46,000 - 50,000 years ago. The remains were found in a cave in Shanidar, near the present Turkey-Iran border. The French archeologist, Arlette Leroi-Gourhan, found that the corpse had been covered with flowers from only seven species, Muscari included.