Sunday, March 25, 2012

Apple #576: Jealousy vs. Envy

So a friend of mine recently bought a house. I'll call her Margaretta. (No, her name isn't really Margaret. I'm thinking of that part in The Sound of Music when the children go to the convent to talk to Maria, but they only get Sister Margaretta, and she won't let them in. They say her name over and over so plaintively, "Oh, Sister Margaretta, please. Please, Sister Margaretta. Please.")

So my friend Margaretta bought a house. I wish I owned my own house. I think this means that I am jealous. Or am I envious? I know there's a difference between the two, but what is it? And which of the two am I?

I think maybe I'd like a bungalow like this one. Nothing too big or too fancy. But I would like a big tree out front, for some shade.
(Photo from StarCraft Custom Builders)

I'm looking at my Oxford English Dictionary, and there are scads of definitions for these terms. I'll summarize the best I can while still preserving some sense of organization.

  • Looking into my OED, I'm actually rather shocked at how bad envy is. I'd thought it meant something along the lines of wanting what you don't have, but no. It goes way farther than that.
  • Envy comes from the Latin invidere, which strictly speaking, means to look upon. But somewhere in there, even in Roman times, it took on a negative connotation: to look maliciously upon.
  • Our English definitions not only include the malicious part, they make it a pretty major element of what the word means.
  • Envy is first of all, "malignant or hostile feeling; ill-will, malice, enmity."
  • Whew, that's harsh. I do not bear any of these feelings against Margaretta. Not even close. But wait, there's more.
  • "Active evil, harm, mischief."
  • Egad, no.

The Wicked Witch of the West might be the best personification of the malicious meanings of envy. She wants those ruby slippers so badly, she's filled with ill will, malice, and enmity toward Dorothy. By the way, to be "green with envy" means you're so filled with envy, you're sick to the point of turning green.
(Photo sourced from The Pop Culture Divas)

  • Not until way down in definition 3 do we get to the plain wanting-what-someone-else-has part:
  • "The feeling of mortification and ill-will occasioned by the contemplation of superior advantages possessed by another."
  • Well, that's closer to what I mean, but I don't feel mortified, and I don't feel any ill will toward Margaretta. I'm happy for her that she owns a house. It must give her a great sense of achievement, and I can imagine how gratifying that must be for her. I'm glad she's experiencing that. All that said, I'd like to own my own house and experience something like that too.
  • OK, now, down in definition 4b, we get a much tamer meaning: "A longing for the advantages enjoyed by another person."
  • Yeah, this is much closer to what I mean. But I don't think I want to say "I'm envious" and then have to direct people all the way down to definition 4b to arrive at my true meaning. Let's look at jealousy and see if that comes any closer.

  • Jealous (jealousy's root word) starts out pretty harsh, too: "Vehement in feeling, as in wrath, desire, or devotion."
  • I think most of us use the word jealous with a much tamer sense than this, probably not approaching anything like "vehement."
  • Later definitions get more specific and tend to focus more on the desire part, especially in an amorous sense.
  • Definition 2 is "covetous of the love of another, fond, lustful." This doesn't apply at all to what I feel about Margaretta and her house.
  • Definition 3 gets into the ways in which jealousy mess with the jealous one's head: "Zealous or solicitous for the preservation or well-being of something possessed or esteemed" (That is, you own something or you think you do, and you start to get all protective of it, out of fear that you might lose it); "vigilant or careful in guarding; suspiciously careful or watchful."

This image gets jealousy about right. The kid in the foreground is angry, begrudging what's going on behind him, looking a bit sideways at the two kids hugging behind him. One of the huggers is taunting the foreground kid--or maybe that's only how the foreground kid perceives it.
(Image from MotiFake)

  • Definition 4 really digs into it: "Troubled by the belief, suspicion, or fear that the good which one desires to gain or keep for oneself has been or may be diverted to another; resentful towards another on account of known or suspected rivalry."
  • I don't feel any kind of rivalry or competition with Margaretta. I'm not trying to hang onto something in the face of her pursuit of my goods. I'm beginning to think that jealousy doesn't apply to my situation at all, but I'm pretty fascinated by how detailed the OED is getting with this. It even makes me wonder if some definition-writer for the OED was ever afflicted with jealousy at some point.
  • It parses this very detailed definition still further, saying that jealousy takes on this particular characteristic in relation to sexual love: "Apprehensive of being displaced in the love or good-will of some one; distrustful of the faithfulness of wife, husband, or lover."
  • There are still further definitions, and they all deal pretty much with suspicion. "Suspicious, apprehensive of evil," "Doubtful, mistrustful," "Suspiciously vigilant against," "Requiring suspicious or careful vigilance," etc.

Leave it to the French to depict jealousy in all its fullness. In this 1994 remake of L'Enfer (Torment or Hell), Cluzet plays a hotel manager who is increasingly suspicious that his wife is cheating on him. As the movie progresses, his jealousy becomes more and more obsessive until, well, until things go very wrong.

The original L'Enfer, filmed in 1964, intended to go even further. The director, Clouzot, filmed a lot of sequences in which he played with lighting like mad. The effect is an evocative indication of the distortion of the jealous husband's mind, the way he sees her as constantly changeable, taunting, yet always out of reach. I think the green/blue/yellow portions are especially effective.

I say the film "intended" to go further because the director suffered a heart attack during filming and the movie was never finished. A documentary from 2009 (L'Enfer d'Henri-Georges Clouzot) showed some of the extant pieces of the film together including test shots like the ones in the above sequence, along with commentary and stills of what happened during filming.

By the way, don't confuse these with the 2005 L'Enfer. That one, like the 1994 film, also stars Emmanuelle Béart, but the storyline is completely different, about three sisters with a terrible event in their pasts.

And, as long as we're on the subject of the Fench and jealousy, there's also Alain Robbe-Grillet's Jealousy. But while it's quite gripping and travels much the same path that L'Enfer does, it's a novella and it doesn't have any pictures in it, which sadly makes it less exciting for most website audiences.

  • All right, now that I've distracted you with all sorts of pretty moving pictures, I'll get back to the topic at hand. I think it's safe to say that jealousy, which seems to involve a lot of suspicion, guarding of goods (or people) one already has against possibly losing them to someone else, most often in the context of sexual relationships, does not apply to my desire for a house like Margaretta's.

  • So if jealousy isn't what I mean, and envy is kind of what I mean, but only way down in Definition 4, maybe there's another word that would work better. The only other word I can think of that might fit my situation is covet.
  • This word isn't used all that often anymore -- I think because it makes too many people think of the 10th Commandment, "You shall not covet your neighbor's house; you shall not covet your neighbor's wife, nor his male servant, nor his female servant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, nor anything that is your neighbor's." Nobody wants to admit, with something so obvious as a simple word choice, that they're going around violating one of the Ten Commandments. (I don't care if you say you're not religious; I bet you're still too spooked to use this verb in real life.)
  • But maybe the shoe fits. I'm not afraid to wear shoes that fit. So let's consult the dictionary and find out.
  • Covet's primary focus is on desire, but mainly as it relates to material goods.
  • Covet comes from the Latin cupere, which is also the ancestor of our word cupidity. It, too, means "passionate desire," but it very quickly becomes "inordinate greed." Covet probably isn't too far away from that.
  • Definition 1 of covet says it means "to desire eagerly" but that's said in reference to things or material objects.
  • That's true of my situation. I desire a house, and that's a material thing. But I don't know if I'd say "eagerly." Let's see what else the dictionary says, though. Maybe definitions farther down will fit better.
  • Ah, by definition 3, the eager desire takes a turn toward the negative: "To desire culpably; to long for (what belongs to another)." Here's where covet gets all commandment-y.
  • The fourth and final definition is, succinctly, "To lust" or "To have inordinate or culpable desire for."

You may remember what Dr. Hannibal Lecter taught us about coveting. He asks Clarice, about the serial killer "Buffalo Bill," "What is his nature?" She guesses that he kills women, but Dr. Lecter says, "No. That is incidental. He covets." Buffalo Bill (Jamie Gum or Jame Gumb) is perhaps the best example of how coveting can go seriously wrong.
(Photo from

  • Well, I'm not lusting after Margaretta's house, or any house, for that matter. I would like to own a house. I wish I could, like Margaretta, own my own house. But I don't think that wish is inordinate or culpable.
  • It looks like definition 4 of envy is the one that fits best. I am envious (definition 4) that Margaretta owns her own house. There.


  • To sum up, here are the basic differences between envy, jealousy, and covetousness:
  • Envy: "A longing for the advantages enjoyed by another person" sometimes to the point where you feel malignant or hostile feelings toward that person. Someone else has something and you'd like to have it.
  • Jealousy: you have something, or you're in a relationship with someone, and you're all freaked out that you might lose it. You get very suspicious and guarded lest you lose whatever it is you have to a real or perceived rival. You have something and you're afraid of losing it.
  • Covetousness: you really want something, especially some material goods of some kind, but you want it to the point of lust.

None of these things is really a good emotion to have. I wouldn't recommend that anybody go around feeling envious all day, for example. And in exploring these words, we've encountered some pretty unsavory people. So in this sense, I've violated the spirit of the Daily Apple.

But I did want to know the distinctions between these words, and I do feel better for knowing them. And I would recommend going around consulting the dictionary all day, if you felt like it. So I think the appropriate thing to celebrate here is the Oxford English Dictionary.

Go, OED!

Related entries: Eat Your Heart Out

My copy of the Oxford English Dictionary. Perhaps my favorite reference book of all time.
IMDb, Inferno (1964), Hell (1994), Hell (2005)
Stuart Jeffries, "Clouzot's towering inferno," The Guardian, October 29, 2009
Zola Levitt Ministries, Ten Commandments (includes Hebrew translations)
God Didn't Say That, The Ten Commandments Don't Forbid Coveting (actually a quibble over translations. Maintains that the verb should have been translated as take rather than covet.)

Scorpio Tales, Expressions & Sayings, G

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Apple #575: Magnolias

The magnolia trees in my neighborhood are blooming. I know they're early bloomers each year, sometimes so early the snow is falling on the blossoms. But since we've been having summer-like weather in early March, I wondered if the magnolias are blooming any earlier than usual.

Magnolias in bloom
(Photo by the Apple Lady)

  • Well, of course the answer to that depends on what kind of magnolia you're talking about.
  • There are about 80 different species of magnolia, many of which have several cultivars (varieties) within each species. The Southern Magnolia, for example, has over 100 different kinds of cultivars.
  • Not even discussing the variations among cultivars, there is all sorts of variation among the species. Those variations can affect a lot of things, including when the flowers bloom.
  • Some species are deciduous (the Saucer Magnolia is one of these), some are semi-evergreen (the Jane Magnolia, for example), and some are evergreen year-round (Southern, or Magnolia grandiflora).

The Jane Magnolia is semi-evergreen, and it has tulip-shaped flowers which are pinkish-purple on the outside and bright white at the center.
(Photo from You can order a 3-4 ft. Jane magnolia from here for $69.)

The Southern Magnolia can grow to be 60 to 90 feet tall. Its flowers are entirely white.
(Photo from Missouri Botanical Garden)

  • The Sweetbay Magnolia is a favorite among gardeners in South Carolina. But the same species may be deciduous, semi-evergreen, or evegreen depending on where in South Carolina it is grown.

Sweetbay Magnolia flowers are a creamy white and the petals tend to do this rounded, scoop-like thing. They also have a light, lemony fragrance.
(Photo by Rodger Hamner, from University of Florida IFAS Extension)

  • I'm going to guess that the magnolias in my neighborhood are Saucer Magnolias. Here's why:
  • Saucer Magnolias are deciduous (check).
  • They can grow to about 20 to 30 feet high (check. It was difficult to get close-ups of the blossoms because nearly all of them hung at heights taller than I am.).
  • The flowers are large and saucer-shaped (check).
  • The petals are white with pink, purple, or lilac on the outside (well, check, I think.).
  • One site has a drawing of a Saucer Magnolia tree and its flower, and the drawing shows a flower whose petals on the interior are nearly all white with a blush of pink, while the exterior of the petal is pinkish-purple (definitely check).

Close-up of what I think is a Saucer Magnolia. Looking down on the blossom from above, you can just barely make out a tinge of pink in the otherwise white petals. So you might be tempted to say these flowers are white.
(Photo by the Apple Lady)

But what fascinates me is that from underneath, these very same flowers appear to be mostly pink. The pink color seems to be confined to the outside, undersides of the petals. It's funny that more of the pink doesn't appear in the flowers when looking down on them from above.
(Photo by the Apple Lady)

  • So, assuming that these are Saucer Magnolias, when do Saucer Magnolias bloom? Once again, the answer depends. This time, it seems to depend on where the tree is growing:
  • In New York's Central Park, they bloom "as early as late March."
  • In South Carolina, they bloom in March or April.
  • In Houston, they bloom in late February or early March.
  • Along the coast, they may open as early as February.
  • One site generalizes it best: as early as late winter, or as late as mid-spring.
  • So I'm heartened to learn that while the weather may be wackily out of season, the magnolias, at least, seem to be right on schedule.

Whenever the Magnolias bloom, they sure are a welcome sight after winter.
(Photo by the Apple Lady)

Magnolias in General
  • Despite all the variations among magnolia species, there are some things you can say about the lot of them.
  • Magnolias are relatively easy to care for. Most species are not bothered by bugs or other pests.
  • That said, most magnolias are pollinated--not by bees--by beetles. The beetles don't bug the trees, they're just there to help out.
  • Magnolias generally don't like to be transplanted once they've got a root system going.
  • This is because, while a magnolia's roots don't run deep, they are long and ropey, so it's hard to make sure you've got them all bundled together when you're moving the tree.
  • If you really must move a magnolia, dig as wide a rootbed as possible. It's more important to make it large in circumference than it is to dig deep, since most of the roots live close to the surface. Also, if you can, snip a few roots a year before you're going to move the tree. This will encourage the roots to branch, making it more likely to withstand being moved the following year.
  • For the same reason, it's a good idea not to plant other flowers or shrubs around the base of the magnolia. Those other plants will interfere with your magnolia's roots.
  • Most people call Magnolias trees, but apparently it is more accurate to say they are shrubs.
  • The primary difference between a tree and a shrub is that trees usually have one or maybe two main trunks, while shrubs have lots of stems. Shrubs are also usually shorter than trees, but what constitutes "shorter" versus "taller" seems to vary from one shrub/tree to another.

This magnolia plainly has lots of main stems, so even though it is fairly tall, it should probably be called a shrub.
(Photo by the Apple Lady)

  • That said, while "shrub" may be technically correct, in person, I'd probably call a 90-foot Southern Magnolia a "tree." I think in that case, its height would trump its multi-stemmed-ness.
  • In the history of plants, magnolias are thought to be among the earliest, or most primitive, of all flowering plants. Some of the oldest fossils of flowers look very similar to magnolia blossoms.

Did the earliest flowers look something like this?
(Photo by the Apple Lady)

United States National Arboretum, Magnolia Questions and Answers
Southern Living, Magnolia: Essential Southern Plant
John Eustice, University of Minnesota Extension, Magnolias for Minnesota
Debbie Shaughnessy, Clemson Cooperative Extension, Magnolia
Backyard Nature, Magnolia Blossoms
Urban Forest Ecosystems Institute, Saucer Magnolia
Arbor Day Foundation, Magnolia, Saucer, Magnolia x soulangeana
Central Park Conservancy, Saucer Magnolia
Steve Nix,, Forestry, How to Manage and Identify Saucer Magnolia
Greg Shelley, Saucer Magnolia churns out the blooms in early March, Houston, March 3, 2010

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Apple #574: Kinds of Pears

When I went to the grocery store the other day, they had a lot of pears. Different kinds of them. I've eaten all three kinds before but I couldn't say which one I liked best. So I thought I'd try all three and compare. And I also decided to find out exactly what is the difference between the varieties.

3 pears. The brown papery-looking one is a Bosc pear, the red one is a Red Anjou, and the green speckled one is a Bartlett.
(Photo by the Apple Lady)

They weren't quite ripe when I bought them, and I've had only one of them so far, the Bartlett. It's been a while since I've eaten a pear, and it was a very pleasant experience. The pear was really juicy, and the flesh's grainy texture makes the whole experience at once lush and delicate.

I haven't tried the other two yet, since I'm still waiting for them to ripen. But I thought, in the meantime, I'd learn about the different varieties and then I'd know what I'm eating.

Pears in General

There are all sorts of varieties of pears -- way more than what you usually see in the grocery store.
(Photo from A World Community Cookbook)

  • There are some 3,000 varieties of pears worldwide. That boggles my mind.

  • Pears originally came from Asia. Europeans adopted them and grew their own varieties. Then the early colonists brought them to America.

  • They grew pretty well in the colonies for a while, but then blight wiped out a lot of the trees. Now most American pears are grown west of the Rockies, where diseases are less severe.

  • In fact, most USA pears grown today are from Oregon or Washington.

  • Pears are one of the few fruits that do not ripen on the tree. They only ripen after they're picked.

  • When you buy pears from the store, they will be mature but not yet soft. Take them home, leave them out on the table or counter. Refrigerating will only slow down the ripening process.

  • To determine whether a pear is ripe or not, don't squeeze the fruit. Instead, press gently on the pear at the top near the stem. If it's soft up there and "yields to pressure," it's ready to eat.

  • The only variety for which this is not true is the Bartlett. The Bartlett will show you that it's ripe. Its skin will turn from a non-ripe-looking green to a brighter green-yellow.

  • If the flesh of any pear is soft, it's over-ripe. You could eat it "out of hand" as they say but it won't be at its best. A too-soft and too-ripe pear is best for cooking or baking.

Pear Varieties

All pears taste like pears -- juicy and sweet and soft. So when I describe how they taste, I'll indicate in what way they are different than other varieties.


Bartletts are yellow-green when they're ripe. The skin has little brown speckles.
(Photo from Nature Hills Nursery)

  • Bartletts have a mild flavor with some light citrus overtones.
  • Some people call these Williams pears.
  • Bartletts are probably the most common or best-known variety. They are what you'll find in cans or containers in the grocery store.
  • That's kind of ironic, considering that most foodie types say that Bartletts are their least favorite for "out of hand" (raw, pick it up & bite into it) eating.
  • This is the first one I ate. If Bartletts are the least favorite, the others must be fantastic.
  • Bartletts tend to get mushy and fall apart when they're cooked. So if you want to make some sort of pear sauce, Bartletts are your best bet. They're also good for baking, poaching, roasting, or any other sort of cooking you might want to do with pears.
  • There are also Red Bartletts, which most people list as a separate variety. People say the Red Bartlett's flavor is milder yet sweeter than the yellow-green variety. It, too, is good for canning and cooking, but it's better than the green for out-of-hand eating.
  • In season: August through February


Green Anjou (an-SZHU) pears are similar in color to Bartletts. But their shape is smaller and more squat.
(Photo from Cook's Thesaurus)

  • This green pear does not change color as it ripens. So the best way to determine whether it's ripe is to test the neck for softness.
  • The green Anjou's flesh is firm yet creamy in texture. Its flavor is mild, with just a hint of citrus.
  • Foodies say that if you want a raw, green pear, the Anjou is a better choice than the Bartlett. It also holds up very well when cooked.
  • They're named after the Anjou region in France, though they're thought to have originated in Belgium.
  • These are also very common in the US and are often available year-round.
  • In season: September through July


Red Anjou pears, like their green counterparts, have a similarly squat neck and compact shape. Their skin is a dark husky red.
(Photo from Cook's Thesaurus)

  • Similar in size to the green Anjou, the red has a slightly, mild spice to it and no citrus notes.
  • To me, the red Anjou seems the most autumnal of pears. It's a similar difference from the green, the same way red grapes have a slightly darker, spicy tang over green grapes.
  • I think these are also especially juicy if you catch them at their ripest.
  • In season: September through May


Bosc pears have long, tapered necks and that tell-tale brown papery-looking skin.
(Photo from Nicole Abdou's Destination: Unknown)

  • Bosc pears look like they have something wrong with them. The skin looks like a brown paper bag. But that's how they're supposed to be. And trust me, the texture of the skin when you bite into it isn't papery at all. It's soft and yielding.
  • Their sweetness is like honey, but they also have slightly darker, almost musky notes.
  • These are a favorite for cooking and especially poaching because they retain their shape and the complexity of flavor doesn't get lost when cooked.
  • In season: September through April


With their tall, skinny shape, you might think Concorde pears are green Boscs. But they're not, and they taste quite different.
(Photo from USA Pears)

  • Here's where the varieties tend to get less common in most grocery stores.
  • Concorde pears are tall and skinny with a green skin that sometimes turns golden in places.
  • The flesh has vanilla notes and its flavor tends to be rather mild.
  • Concordes don't brown as quickly when exposed to air, so they make a good choice for fruit salads, especially if the salad has to sit out for a while.
  • They also hold their shape and flavor when cooked.
  • In season: September through February


The Starkrimson looks similar to a red Anjou, but its red is a brighter, shinier red and its shape is narrower.
(Photo from The Fruit Company)

  • The Starkrimson is also sweet, but everyone agrees that it has a floral aroma and flavor. Some say the floral taste is too much when eaten raw. Since roasting smooths out the floral-ness, most people recommend eating these only when cooked.
  • In season: August through January


Forelle pears are red and green and speckled like a trout
(Photo from The Fruit Company)

  • Forelle means "trout" in German, and that's a helpful way of identifying these, as the flesh is red shading to green and speckled like a trout.
  • The official word for the speckles, by the way, is lenticles.
  • Forelles are one of the few pears that change color as they ripen. The skin turns from green to a lighter yellow, and the speckles stay very visible.
  • This pear has more of a tart flavor. It's probably the closest in texture and taste to an apple.
  • Because of their small size, their best eaten raw rather than cooked. Some recommend drizzling honey on these.
  • For a European pear, these are very old, dating back to the 1600s from Germany.
  • In season: October through March


Seckel pears are very small. The green on their skin is almost olive-colored, and they have patches of red blush.
(Photo from the Seasonal Chef)

  • Some say Seckels have crunchy flesh, others say velvety. You'll have to try one and decide.
  • But most agree, they're ultra-sweet, with notes of sweet champagne.
  • Because they're so sweet and small, children will eat these pears when they might turn up their noses at other varieties.
  • For adults, it's recommended that these be paired with a sharp cheese to balance the sweetness and a glass of wine.
  • When roasted, they become "decadent."
  • In season: September through February


Comice pears are round and short with a very short neck. They're usually green with a large red blush, though some are almost entirely red. They're often a favorite in Christmas gift baskets.
(Photo from Twisting Vines)

  • I've never seen a Comice pear in my grocery store, but people rave about these.
  • They say they have a mellow sweetness, with a "custardy" flesh, and then they resort to using all sorts of delicious adjectives like "luscious" and "succulent" and "buttery."
  • People say these make delicious desserts on their own, but they're exceptionally good when paired with cheese.
  • Their full name is Doyenné du Comice. This pear originates in France. So it stands to reason it would probably do especially well with French cheese.
  • In season: September through March

If I ever see a Comice pear in a store, I'm eating it.

USA Pears, Pear Varieities
Anna Stockwell, Tasting Notes: 10 Varieties of Pear, Saveur, December 10, 2010
Blogging Erika on HubPages, Best Pears - What Kind of Pear Should I Buy?
Produce Oasis, Types of Pears
Molly Watson,, Local Foods, Types of Pears

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Apple #573: Venus' Flower Basket

I just got back from a good but tiring vacation. I must get some sleep, but before I do, I want to find out about something I encountered on my vacation -- a Venus' Flower Basket.

I was in a natural history museum when I saw the skeleton of this thing. The note next to it said that the skeleton is made of silica -- glass. My jaw dropped. A living creature's skeleton is made of glass? I must know more.

The bleached skeleton of a Venus' flower basket, or a glass sponge. The fibers are made of silica, a.k.a. glass.
(Photo from the Natural History Museum, London)

  • This animal -- yes, it's an animal -- is a type of sponge.
  • Venus' flower baskets (Euplectella or Eupectella aspergillum) live in the ocean where the water has lots of silica and is very cold, which often also means that it's very deep, anywhere from 10 to 5,000 meters below the surface.
  • They live mainly in the South Pacific off the coast of Japan and the Philippines, but they've also recently been found off the coast of Australia.
  • When they're alive, the sponges can range in color from white to creamy yellow. The "skeletons" that are often displayed in museums are typically the tissue of the sponge which has been dried and bleached to give it an even whiter color.

Three Euplectella living underwater. They don't live in colonies the way coral do; it's just that these three happened to set down roots near each other.
(Photo from telecomBlog)

  • Their shape is what allows these sponges to survive in the huge pressures that exist at such ocean depths. How they make their shape has been the subject of a lot of research.
  • Like all sponges, Venus' flower baskets are filter feeders. One of the things they filter from the water is silica.
  • The sponge has special cells called spicules. The spicules extract silica from the seawater, and then they set the silica bits on top of a wire of collagen protein. So the structure gets built bit by bit, but very delicately. This process is known as biomineralization.

Looking down into the internal cavity of a Venus' flower basket
(Photo from Tecnologia e Desenvolvimento Sustentavel)

  • Lots of sponges do this biomineralization thing. What's unique to the Venus' flower basket is the way in which it builds its layers of silica.
  • The spicules themselves have three perpendicular rays, which gives them 6 points. As the sponge biomineralizes, it forms more spicules. It lays them down, layer by layer, each a few millimeters thick. Between each layer is a thin layer of "organic matrix" that functions like glue. There are seven different types of layers, each arranged concentrically and hierarchically.
  • Outside the mesh of spicules is another set of cells. Some people call these filaments, some call it a trabecular net, others call it a synctium, still others call it a cobweb. Whatever you call it, these form an outer layer and they get wrapped around the mesh in various orientations: horizontally, vertically, and diagonally.
  • This outer layer helps to make the structure a little more sturdy, which is very important since glass is very brittle, and this animal's entirely-glass skeleton has to survive at very pressure-heavy depths.

This image gives you a good sense of the underlying mesh and the syncytium that winds around the top of it.
(Photo from Richard L. Howey's page on the Euplectella aspergillum)

  • "As yet," says one researcher, "it is not clear how a primitive organism can produce such a complex and optimized structure at all."
  • But wait, there's more.
  • Inside the mesh is an open cavity where the ocean waters wash through and get filtered. One of the things that floats into the cavity are tiny shrimp larvae.
  • The shrimp larvae stay in there, eating happily away until one fateful day when they discover they've gotten too big to swim back out again. Sometimes a few get trapped in there, but often it will be a pair, male and female.
  • So people have made up a quaint little story that the shrimp have found each other and live out their wedded bliss together until death do they part within the chambers of the sponge.
  • This is why the sponge is named after Venus, the goddess of love.
  • This is also why the Japanese often give each other these sponges (after they've been collected and dried) as tokens of love or as wedding gifts.
  • What I find even more fascinating than that sentimental gush is the fact that a sponge which is entirely made of glass can not only survive super-high pressures of 1,000 meter ocean depths, but it can also survive little pincer bites from the pair of shrimp who take up residence inside its body. Tough little cusses, these underwater glass nets.
  • And in real life, the shrimp and sponge live symbiotically. The shrimp clean the interior walls of their sponge-cage with their little pincers, and in return, the shrimp get to eat some of the food the sponge takes in.

Shrimp inside a Venus' love basket. Is it eternal love between shrimp, or is it really intraspecies cooperation -- which may itself be a form of love?
(Photo from Fresh Photons)

  • Oh, did you think that was all these things can do? No no, my friends. There's still more.
  • OK, so the sponge's eggs mature inside the females and get fertilized there, and when they become larvae, they get spewed out of the sponge. Released into the wide ocean, the larvae beat their little ciliae to propel themselves through the water, looking for their new home.
  • These little freddies can swim for several days, but most tend to find their favorite spot on the ocean floor after about 12 hours. Once they've landed, a tuft of fibers at the end of the animal attaches to the ocean floor, and then they begin developing into adults.
  • Here's the jaw-dropping part. That tuft of fibers is not just a mass of weird-looking hairs. The fibers are very fine and very long, sometimes up to 175 meters. Because they're so fine and they're made of silica, their composition happens to be a lot like fiber-optic cables. Exactly the same, in fact. Which means that these funny little hairs sticking out from the end of this animal can trap and transmit light.

Most of the bleached skeletons have lost the little fibers at the end, but here they're intact and very visible. This sponge has tons of those little hairs. Which can act like a fiber optic cable.
(Photo by Ryan Somma, sourced from

  • Wait, did I say they're exactly the same as our fiber optics? I was wrong. They actually work better than the fiber optic cables we make. And the animals are more efficient at making their fiber optics than we are.
  • No one is sure if the sponges use their fibers' ability to transmit light for a particular purpose and if so, what that purpose might be. Some researchers speculate that those fibers are how the animal attracts one of its favorite foods, which is algae.
  • Or perhaps the light is what attracts those shrimp larvae, which are bioluminescent. This theory is that the shrimp see the light from the little hairs and, thinking it's more shrimp, swim inside. Thus the sponge gains its symbiotic partners.
  • Oh, and by the way, what with those bioluminescent shrimp in there and the fiber optic hairs floating off the bottom, these creatures glow in the super-dark that is the very deep depths where they live.

Like all sponges, these animals have no brain, no nervous system at all, no organs like a heart or stomach or kidney. They don't even have that many types of cells. Yet they build their own bodies in these complex, mathematical shapes, they make their own fiber optic cables, they glow in the dark, and they house a pair of shrimp for life to boot. Pretty incredible stuff.

Natural History Museum of London, Eupectella aspergillum (Venus' flower basket)
Encyclopedia Britannica, Venus's flower basket
Max Planck Research, Secrets of the Venus' Flower Basket, April 2005
Queensland Museum, Animals of Queensland, Unique features of sponges, Organic & inorganic skeletons
University of Michigan Museum of Zoology, Euplectella aspergillum
Una esponja submarina genera fibras ópticas mejores que las industriales, telecomBLOG
Peter Weiss, Channeling light in the deep sea, Science News Online