Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Clove Gillyflowers: A Botanical Ramble

As with our eviction from Eden (a botanical story in itself, it turns out), it all started with an apple. At a historical symposium recently, we were talking about an old apple orchard that survived on a historic homestead in Westminster, Colorado. Do you know the name of the apple?, I asked, and the answer led me into temptation.

Apple image by Abhijit Tembhekar from Mumbai, India, source: Wikipedia.

"Sops-in-wine," I was told. Oddly, I had just read that very name in American Household Botany, a useful compendium of botanica I'm currently reading. But the name, sometimes known as "Sops-of-wine," was not applied (in the book) to heirloom apples. Off we go then!

What are sops? The noun, we understand, refers to "a piece of food dipped or steeped in a liquid," from the Middle English, soppe, and allied to, of all things, sopaipillas, which derived from sopa, or food soaked in milk, apparently of Germanic origin. About the only use of the word I can think of nowadays is in the adjective form, sopping wet. (Except for a friend of mine, whose 17 years in old Mexico taught her to make a mouth-watering sops of bread in red chile sauce.)

Sops of Wine is described by Big Horse Creek Farms as an "excellent early summer apple which grows well in all regions of the South. Its exact origins are unclear, but Beach (1905) says it is an ancient English culinary and cider apple. Fruit medium to large, slightly conical, with greenish-yellow skin covered with dark red faint red striping. Flesh is yellow and often stained with pink"—just as if it had been sopped, or soaked, in wine. Whether it actually was ever sopped in wine is, I suppose, another story.

Another plant truly was sopped in wine: the Clove Gillyflower, to which the name "sops in/of wine" is also applied. We've all seen these flowers, we just know them by another name: Carnation (Dianthus caryophyllus and others). John Parkinson described “gilloflowers” in 1629, in his “Paradisus Terrestris.” He notes:

To avoid confusion, I must divide Gilloflowers from Pinkes and intreats of them in several chapters, of those that are called Carnations or Gilloflowers as of the greater kinds in this Chapter; and of the Pinkes as well double as single, in the next. But the number is so great that to give several descriptions to them all were endlesse… I account those that are called Carnations to be the greatest, both for leafe and flower, and Gilloflowers for the most part to bee lesser in both…”

Parkinson thereafter names some nineteen types of Carnations and 29 of Gillyflowers, not including the small wild gillyflowers he calls “Pinkes.”

Dianthus, literally from the Greek, means “divine flower” (dios plus anthos). It is in the family Caryo-phyllaceae, and the specific epithet of Gillyflowers, D. caryophyllus, adopts the family name. The carnation is also linked to cloves, and was once called “clove pink” for its scent and frequent use as a substitute for the expensive imported spice.

The clove tree, dried buds of which are the familiar spice, was Caryophyllus aromaticus L. (caryo meaning nut, and phyllus, of course, leaf). (It is not, however, in the Caryophyllaceae, but in the Myrtaceae, where it is now known as Syzygium aromaticum (L.) Merr. & L.M.Perry. Go figure.)

The English name Carnation is often thought to be derived from the Latin for flesh, as in carnal or carnage, which many of us associate with the color red. In fact, according to Webster’s, the carnation was originally “flesh-colored but now found in many color variations.” An old alternative, dating to the 16th century, connects the word to “Coronation,” in reference both to its common use in “weaving crowns or chaplets for the head, or as Lyte has it, from the flowers dented or toothed above—like to a littell crownet.”

Whence "gillyflower"? Wikipedia suggests this one is a corruption of the French giroflée, which translates the original Greek karyophyllon. Which puts us back to cloves again.

Should you not wish to adulterate good wine by soaking carnations in it, this same Wikipedia article offers a recipe for making wine using only gillyflowers, if you happen to have a peck of them on hand.

An old recipe for gilliflower wine is mentioned in Cornish Recipes Ancient & Modern dated to 1753:

“To 3 gallons water put 6lbs of the best powder sugar; boil together for the space of 1/2 an hour; keep skimming; let it stand to cool. Beet up 3 ounces of syrup of betony, with a large spoonful of ale yeast, put into liquor & brew it well; put a peck of gilliflowers free of stalks; let work fore 3 days covered with a cloth; strain & cask for 3-4 weeks, then bottle."

These days, it's a challenge to find carnations that smell like cloves or anything else. I suspect our modern "gillyflowers" would not make a very fragrant wine. Maybe the apples would work instead!

——More References
A Sales Manual on Colorado Carnations, by the Colorado Flower Growers Association, Inc. circa 1960s (includes an extensive history chapter on this flower, quoted above; online at Colorado State University).

Cloves, Picotees, and Sops in Wine, a nice essay on Cottage Gardening by Barbara M. Martin.

American Household Botany: A History of Useful Plants 1620-1900, by Judith Sumner. 2004. Timber Press, Portland and Cambridge. 396 pages.


The Phytophactor said...

Various fruits from Annona are called sops too: soursop (A. muricata) and sweetsop (A. squamosa). One of the oldest apple varieties still being cultivated is sops of gold, I think. Have to check the Apples of New York. Maybe sops of wine is the same variety?

Sally said...

Nice additions, Phactor... I wonder how these fruits were used; what they were sopped in or vice versa.

Thanks for stopping by!

JSK said...

Wow! I guess this makes a case for the use of botanical names - at least in addition to if not in place of - common names. Like Phytophactor, the name 'sop' immediately made me think of soursop - probably because I've been on a quest and just found my first Pawpaw fruits (Asimina triloba;related to soursops) in the wild.
If you 'google' 'apple + sop' most of the references are for Anona squamosa (Sweet sop or Sugar apple) - no references to apples. You have to specifically google 'sops of wine' to get the apple.
Interesting, just shows.

Sheri said...

Interesting etymology! Funnily enough, I was just checking out some of the names given to Hesperis matronalis, one of which is Gillyflower. The suggestion, as you no doubt know, it that Gillyflower is a corruption of July-flower.
Thanks for the detailed history. I think I'll stick to sipping my wine sans carnations.

Sally said...

JSK and Sheri--

Thanks for adding to the lore on sops! I don't know those southeastern species at all, sad to say.

"July-flower" makes sense, I guess, and I hadn't heard about the name being applied to Dame's rocket. Also, Mary mentioned Harry Potter's 'gillyweed', in Goblets of Fire. Different etymology, though--gills!

Mary said...


This is an absolutely wonderful post! It started out making me think of Michael Pollan's chapter on the apple in Botany of Desire, and his description of the ancient apple trees of Russia, which are giant, gnarly trees if I remember both location and description correctly.

Then came all those carnation associations - high school proms, etc. - and then cloves. Maybe gilliflower wine is pre-mulled.

And finally, then, those soursops and sweetsops mentioned by Phytophactor and JSK. I can tell you that these fruits are used here simply to eat as is, and if you eat them by hand, just off the tree, you get sopping wet in the process, they are so juicy and sweet. They might make a drinkable wine - I can sort of imagine it - but they are used here in Panama to flavor ice cream and yogurt in season. They are among my favorite tropical fruits.

So thanks for the delightful sensory trip.

JSK said...

OK, Sheri, so I'm back again. Couldn't let go of the apple 'issue'. I knew something was nagging at me about the 'sop of wine' apple. Is there a relationship between this apple and the Winesap whose name could be a variation of sop of wine?

JSK said...

Mary,I just found my first wild Paw Paw (Asimina triloba) tree - relative of the soursop. It has young fruit so I'm going to be stalking it through the summer. Hopefully the fruit will hang on and I'll be able to taste some. The only member of this group I'm familiar with is the Custard Apple (Annona reticulata). They were also quite juicy although we managed to eat them in a more genteel :-) manner.

Sally said...

Mary, thanks for your lovely comment! I'm still trying to understand all these sops! Maybe you can send me some fruits? ;)

JSK-- sounds like a lot of diversity in this group. I appreciate the sci names, and I'm inspired to do more research on this branch of sops.

Thanks to all of you for this lively and informative discussion!