Kiss on Our List

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

Some mysterious algorithm recently offered me a post about inosculation (in-ahs-cue-lay-shun), a naturally occurring grafting of trees. One tree seeming reaches out to another, and they grow into each other. They become conjoined organisms sharing nutrients and circulation.

All very interesting natural science, of course, but what you, as a reader of this blog, are no doubt wondering is, “Where does that word come from?” Inosculation derives from osculum, the Latin noun meaning “kiss.”

This history leads, as happens so often, to other interesting facts. Previous posts have explored linguistic diminutives, that is, words modified to express smallness or endearment. For example, a drum major struts in front of the band authoritatively, while a majorette, though skilled and athletic, is usually pretty and feminine. The –ette makes her so. We may dislike a cat, but a kitty? Not so much. Certain suffixes serve to make the ordinary noun small, unthreatening, and even charming.

So it is for osculum. It builds on the Roman word for “mouth,” that is, os. The -culum suffix makes the mouth small and cute and pursed. A kiss, in other words, is a “little mouth.” (Analogously, a homunculus is a “little man.”) In addition, I learned that sponges breathe through their oscula, their little mouths.

This article from the University of New Hampshire shows lovely images of tree osculation. It explains that when branches rub against each other, the bark wears away and then grows scar tissue, which can form a bond between the trees. This connection can even occur between trees of different species.

To my delight, this source also recounts the mythological story of Baucis and Philemon, one of my favorites told by Ovid in his Metamorphoses. The devoted elderly couple shared their meager resources with the gods Jupiter and Mercury, visiting in disguise. As a reward, the gods granted them the gift of dying together and spending eternity as two connected trees. Reading this beautiful tale, I have always imagined two trees with their trunks intertwined, but now I love imagining a deeper dependent connection. Inosculated trees share resources and support one another, as Baucis and Philemon would lovingly do throughout time.

The article also cites Rembrandt’s painting of the couple hosting the gods, which resides in the National Gallery in Washington, and works by the artist Arthur Rackham and the poet Thom Gunn, who calls the couple’s embrace a “wooden hug.” Wrong etymology, but lovely image nonetheless.

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6 Responses to Kiss on Our List

  1. Kathy says:

    Michael–Such a beautiful parasite! “Haustorium,” its donut-shaped root that encircles the host plant’s root, is from the Latin word for “drink.”

    They must be blooming around you now, right?

  2. Michael Whitely says:

    Lovely story, Kathy. Thank you.

    Here’s our version of it, the Western Australian Christmas Tree, Nuytsia Floribunda, or Moodjar in the local language. This video tells more about it than you care to know.

    The local indigenous people stay well away from it because it has attached itself to another tree and so they believe it is the spirit of a dead person who has returned.

  3. Roger Talbott says:

    After posting that, I realized I was misremembering that she was talking about the cloaca maxima.

  4. Roger Talbott says:

    Thank you, as always, for today’s blog post. I can always count on you to educate me and touch my heart. I, too, love the story of Baucis and Philemon. And I didn’t know that trees could grow together, although I am sure I have seen it.
    Thank you, especially, for correcting my understanding of the word “os.” One of my elementary school teachers had moved from teaching Latin teacher in a neighboring district noted for its epic snowfalls to teaching sixth grade in our school, across the street from where she had lived with her parents all of her life. (She was the epitome of a “maiden lady”). She talked about how much sewage flowed through Ostia, and I came away with the impression that “Os” referred to the other end of the digestive tract. A belief that three years of HS Latin didn’t disabuse me of.

  5. Kathy says:

    Thanks, Doreen!

  6. Doreen Kelleher says:

    What a lovely story to read today! The links to Rackham & the actual photos of trees really added to it.
    Thanks Kathy

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