Ramonda myconi, the most representative plant of Montserrat


            After the realization of my article The picturesque Botany of Leonardo da Vinci, published at the section Hidden History of my website, arrived to my hands two precious documents that show that Ramonda myconi (plant that -according to two botanists of my confidence-appears, along with the Narcissus, in the London version of the Virgin of the rocks of Leonardo) is perhaps the more representative flower of Catalonia; and, especially, of Montserrat. Not only because "grows on the rocks" (which would justify its presence in the painting of Leonardo), but especially because it is endemic of this area (i.e. can only be found here, and nowhere else in Europe).



The Virgin of the rocks (London version, 1506)


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Detail of flowers in the Virgin of the rocks of London (Ramonda myconi and Narcissus)




Comparison of the leaves of the painting with the ones of the Ramonda myconi


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The Ramonda myconi in the book Plantas medicinales by Pius Font i Quer


           The first document is the cover of an important book of medicinal plants, Plantas medicinales, el Dioscórides renovado, of the famous catalan botanist Pius Font i Quer. Here it is featured, expressing its importance in the local flora.




             The second one is even more shocking. It's an herborization made in Montserrat by the illustrious philosopher and economist John Stuart Mill. I have read some of his works (On Liberty, in English, and Principios de Economía Política and El utilitarismo, in Spanish). This circumstance produces in me an special satisfaction and pride.

            In addition to his activities as an economist, philosopher and civil servant, John Stuart Mill had a non-negligible activity in the area of the natural sciences. He was a friend of George Bentham, director of the Botanic Gardens, in London (which was nephew of Jeremy Bentham, Stuart Mill teacher and inspirer of his philosophical "utilitarian" line). Collaborated habitually in the magazine The Phytologist, where the author of the article which I now quote has obtained this precious information (Antoni Blanquer Hernández, “Una herborització a Montserrat a la primavera de 1860”, published by the Butlletí de l’Institut Català d’Història Natural, number 71, pages 51 to 58; year 2003).

            In short, in his catalogue of 124 plants, collected in two days of visit to the monastery (which took place, according to the article, on 10-11 may of 1860), John Stuart Mill presents as most representative of Montserrat two plants, as follows:


            1) The different Narcissus: The small yellow Narcissus, N. juncifolius [Narcissus assoanus], formerly confounded with N. jonquilla, grew copiously in the same region; and near the summit of the mountain (on the grassy ledge on which are the ruins of the highest hermitage, that named after St. Jerome), N. biflorus [Narcisus tazetta], more beautiful than even N. poeticus, filled the air with rich fragrance”.

            2) Ramonda myconi: “But the plant most associated with Montserrat is Ramondia pyrenaica, known to those who have botanized at Gavarnie, Esquierry, and other places in the Higher Pyrenees, as one of the most exquisite vegetable productions of the mountain chain. This plant, the only European representative of the Order Cyrtandraceae, was earliest known and described (under the name Verbascum myconi) as a Montserrat plant; these excepted it has, I believe, no other known habitat. I was fortunate enough to find on a rock a plant or two already in flower; not on the higher part of the mountain, but on its lower slope, very near the carriage-road. Though I possessed far more beautiful specimens collected on the rocky side of the torrent at Gavarnie, it gave me great pleasure to find it in what, if not its first abode, is at least the first place in which it was scientifically recognized”.


            Remember that the current scientific name of this species, Ramonda myconi, derives from the name of the naturalist that catalogued it, Francesc Micó. And what is more interesting, this botanist was born ten years after the death of Leonardo; in particular, in 1528. Thus, this plant was already known -and recognized- in the surroundings of the monastery at the beginnings of the 16th century. If Leonardo had been there at that time quite possibly would have been shown the Ramonda as characteristic and representative of the place.

            John Stuart Mill considered the Narcissus, as well as the Ramonda myconi, as the more typical plants of Montserrat (both are highlighted, as we know, in the picture of Leonardo). Pius Font i Quer attached to the Ramonda such importance that stands on the cover of his magna opera: Plantas medicinales. Furthermore, the Ramonda grows in rocky environments; precisely the representative landscape of the Virgin of the rocks by Leonardo.

            Ramonda myconi is, according to the two experts that have helped me, the plant more similar to the one which appears to the feet of Saint John child in this picture, both in their leaves, as in their flowers, and -especially-in the fruits. We can rule out other species with similar flowers or leaves, as the Campanula muralis (see below), because the fruit is different.




 Campanula muralis


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Fruit of the Ramonda myconi. Compare with the detail of the painting


            It squeals a little that the flower is white, while -mainly- the ramonda tends to be blue. We don't have to forget the symbolic value of the white in the religious iconography (it represents the "purity"), but on the other hand is not rare to find specimens of "ear of bear" (its popular name) of white color, as this one (of Ordesa, in the Pyrenees of Aragon):




            In an earlier version of this article, I wrote the following sentence: "[Leonardo outlines some details in his drawings of plants] perhaps with the intention that we can identify them more easily". It seems that this presumption is correct, as we can see in the following text: "According to Heydenreich, on the other hand, the painter [Leonardo], still young, tends -deliberately- to accentuate certain forms which, having little importance from the artistic or aesthetic point of view, typify botanical species drawn by him" (Annalisa Perissa Torrini: "Drawings from the Galleries in the Venice Academy", in the catalogue Leonardo da Vinci and France, of the exhibition held in the castle of Cloux, Amboise, in the year 2009). It is clear that the representation of the fruit and the petals at the same time [which is impossible] could be an example of what was said above.

           But not always Leonardo is exact depicting the plants: in the following image, some narcissus have six petals, and another ones five. It seems he wasn't sure of the exact number:




           That explains why, in the Ramonda myconi, he draws six petals, not five (look above). Perhaps Leonardo made a bad sketch or drawing of the plant; or perhapts he remembered it wrongly.

           So I reiterate the conviction that Leonardo placed a plant of Ramonda myconi, and another of Narcissus, at London's Virgin of the rocks, trying to give clues of the scenario: the rocky -and picturesque- landscape of Montserrat. Not in vain, such plants are very representative of this mountain.

           A last thing. The Ramonda myconi not only appears in the Virgin of the rocks of London, but also in the versión of Paris, painted in the year 1483. Again I thank David Vilasís for this precious information.


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The Virgin of the rocks of Paris (1483), detail. Although less clearly, it also appears the Ramonda myconi. Compare with this photo (below)