'Plumerias the Color of Roseate Spoonbills' - Continuity and transition in the symbolism of Plumeria L. in Mesoamerica

Thomas Josef Zumbroich

Abstract


This study explores the complex symbolism which the genus Plumeria L. engendered from around the beginning of the common era to the present time in Mesoamerica. In much of this cultural area an intense interest in sensory pleasures can be traced to great antiquity, and, consequently, flowers became a central metaphor in the Mesoamerican cosmological discourse. In the Maya pantheon, plumeria was associated with deities representing life force and fertility and therefore plumeria flowers became strongly connected with a wide range of expressions of female sexuality. Among Nahuatl speaking people of central Mexico, especially during the height of the Aztec empire, the most prominent association of plumeria was to signify élite status, with plumeria trees planted in the gardens of the nobility, the blooms exchanged at feasts, or the stylized image of plumeria flowers inscribed on ceramics and codices. This high appreciation for plumerias was also reflected in the number of different varieties that were distinguished by name. Ethnomedical applications, especially of the lactiferous sap of plumeria, show continuity from pre-conquest times to the present. In the context of the hybridized religious systems that developed in response to the introduction of Christianity across Mesoamerica, plumerias developed new meanings, e.g., as elaborate decorations for the worship of the Virgin Mary. When in the sixteenth century plumeria was dispersed beyond the Americas into Southeast Asia, likely through Spanish hands and by way of the Philippines, it gained a wide-spread association with grave yards as a plant promoting contact with the deceased.


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Ethnobotany Research and Applications (ISSN 1547-3465) is published online by the Department of Ethnobotany, Institute of Botany, Ilia State University.
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