A rose is not a rose is not a rose

The new trowel I used to mix a batch of potting soil had a musical ring when tapped. Nice balance, too. And the handle felt good in the hand. As I snickered over the ridiculous sale price of 99¢, thinking of clunky trowels that had cost me many times that much, I suddenly got a smell of lemon. Just then an ant with the color of butterscotch pudding crawled out of the mound of soil. I picked it up and sniffed it. So that’s where the odor of lemon came from!

Number 10 on my list of lemony things that aren’t lemons slipped out of my hand and ran for cover under the greenhouse bench. The other nine lemon impostors are plants. Without mentioning all the mock lemons (supposing it were possible), there is a eucalyptus tree with lemon-scented leaves, a lemon geranium, lemon verbena, a lemon grass that has been used as an ingredient in lemony herbal teas, and lots more lemon imposters.

Lemon thyme was Gulliver’s shelter against a hailstorm in the land of Brobdingnag. It is a low, spreading herb with mouse-ear leaves that glisten in the sun and emits waves of lemon fragrance when stepped on. Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) attracts bees and used to attract one of my children, who enjoyed chewing its leaves.

That so many dissimilar plants (and at least one insect) copy the smell and taste of lemon is food for thought.

The butterscotch ant with the smell of lemon is not a tough nut to crack. Each ant colony is endowed with a unique odor by which its individuals distinguish members of their own colony from those of another. Their scent is their password. Most ant odors are too faint for the human nose. But some are strong, like blue cheese, or rusty nails. I am not inclined to smelling ants, mind, but sometimes the finger is the quickest weapon against an ant sprinting across a kitchen counter. After crushing enough of them, you get to know what ants smell like. The Blue Cheese Colony, a race of black midgets, keeps defying my efforts to banish them from the kitchen and from the toothpaste in the bathroom. If this had been the species aboard one of the earliest space probes it might have escaped and begun to colonize outer space.

Naturalists are prone to attribute copycatting to “protective mimicry.” For example, a treehopper that is shaped like a thorn on a stem goes unnoticed by treehopper-eaters. That case is easy to follow. In a similar match, a desert animal that grazes upon succulent plants might pass up a patch of Lithops, since they look like little stones. That case is harder to swallow, for we must assume that the cactivore can’t smell the difference. Nature is full of such games, presumably intended for survival − in this case, survival of the copycats.

But why should an orchid mimic the face of a monkey? Or a crab carry the face of a samurai warrior on its back? Why should a begonia ape a rose? Or a grass steal the flavor of a lemon? Is this “protective mimicry,” or is it nature having a gas? For one thing, nature is a bit heavy on the lemon, I’d say. How does the citrus connection help these mock lemons? I should be in India, I know, to find out what’s in it for citronella grass when tigers trample it to keep bugs off their backs.

The thought occurs to me that deception by humans is a game copycatted from nature to confuse others – not always in fun.

Puttering in a greenhouse is conducive to such thoughts. Now and then a ray of insight flashes through. But the fog of mystery soon returns. It’s a fog that surrounds the probe-shy Creation, whose reality laughs at our digital imitations and illusions.

Conscious of what I had been doing, I continue recycling the soil from a pot that grew lemon basil, sifting it through a small frame of hardware cloth. Why do I suddenly smell carnations, when I didn’t grow any? I lift the roots of the lemon basil to my nose. The smell of carnations! Or is it cloves?

I can’t help thinking that when Gertrude Stein, back in 1913, penned the line, “a rose is a rose is a rose,” she may not have considered how easy it is to fake reality. Tricking the senses and the mind into seeing what isn’t there or believing what isn’t true is a very old game.

Photo credit: Parvin CC BY-SA 2.0 license

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