An assignation with the Hellenic seductress frangipani

An assignation with the Hellenic seductress frangipani
Plumeria/Frangipani is tropical tree, famous for its gorgeous flowers which are used to make leis (floral garlands). In regions with cold winter, plumeria can be grown in containers and brought indoors when the weather cools in autumn.

Here in Syros, a small island in the Cyclades in Greece, I was ambling homeward at night after a memorable meal of kalamari (squid) stuffed with feta cheese, when I rounded a corner and was stopped as dead in my tracks as if I’d walked into a wall, the wall being the overpowering scent of afrangipani tree growing more than 50m away in the courtyard of our guesthouse.

On the following morning, a Sunday, as I looked down on the frangipani from the balcony above (and the bells of heaven boomed and chimed from the Greek Orthodox and Catholic churches at every point of the compass) I saw that it was a magnet for a swarm of hummingbird hawk moths flitting and whizzing vertically,laterally and horizontally over the flowers.

Conned into believing that the night scent of the tree promises pools of nectar in every blossom, the day-flying moths visit flower after flower in vain, ‘helicoptering’ on whirring wings (hence, the hummingbird comparison) while they insert their long proboscices, thin as human hairs, to the heart of the blossoms only to be disappointed but, in the process, carrying pollen from one to the other and, thus servicing the tree.

The frangipani (also called pulmeria) is a seductress, all perfume and no nectar. Where it is indigenous, the southern states of the US, Central America, Indonesia, it attracts the sphinx moth, another hawk moth: there are over 100 hawk moth species of which we, in Ireland, have seven,including the hummingbird.

So far-reaching, so heady and seductive is the fragrance that, walking into its ambience, a lonely sailor, cast ashore at an unknown port, might well think he had hauled up at a harbor of delight only to find that trees were the source of the perfume, not lissom beauties with flowers in their hair.

The frangipani might indeed be a deceiver, not only of hawk moths but of nighthawks. However, I cannot believe that there is a bordello anywhere on these islands of bells and churches, or that iniquity is anywhere for sale.

In Athens, very much more like a metropolis of the Middle East than of western Europe, private enterpriseis on every street and spilling over every pavement of the city centre. The streets are clean but crowded; everything from a needle to an anchor, as they say, is available from shops and stalls, with farm produce, fresh from the land, clay still on the roots, offered from the backs of trucks with earth still on the tyres.

One cannot but respect the enterprise and the bustle. The fish market is a kaleidoscope of submarine life of every form, shape and genre native to the Mediterranean. It is a wonder to behold. Where do all the fish, shellfish, crustaceans, crabs arrive from every day of the week in their multicoloured millions? Are all of them eaten? Do they find restaurants or homes?

At an iconic monument, Hadrian’s Library, relatively ‘recent’, being the creation of the Romans after they defeated and usurped the Greeks, I came upon an icon of the local wildlife, a tortoise, rambling through the ruins.

As it posed for a photograph before hurrying on (European tortoises can move at a surprising speed) I reflected on its ancestry and wondered if its predecessors had occupied that territory long before Hadrian and the Greek civilizations were ever even heard of. It was a philosophical, ancient and wise-looking creature. If only it could have talked, how much could I have learnt?

Athens is overlooked by the Parthenon and its soaring columns, what is left of them after the depredations of Persians, pirates and Venetians. The ruins, in constant restoration, stand against the skyline high on the Acropolis hill. Originally, there were 46 outer columns and 26 inner. Their height is/was 10.4m, their diameter 1.9m.

What mighty works, they are, fluted with runnels carved into the marble from pedestal to capital, each parallel and exact of course, and made how?

By slaves, worker ants in hundreds? Another day with the stone chisel, carving the marble, the hand and wrist that holds it still strong but, then,gone to dust with the work still half finished, the owner never knowing that he, anonymous as the tortoise in death as in life, was a single author among the hundreds that created this abiding monument to the universal impulse of mankind to make from the stuff of the earth a vehicle that would transport him to the realms of the gods that created him.

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