Monday, 16 May 2011


Last week saw a flurry of news stories about the mass emergence of 13-year periodical cicadas in Georgia and other southeastern states of the U.S. These cicadas all belong to Brood XIX, aka the Great Southern Brood, which last appeared in 1998, and is due now to return in 2024. There are three broods of 13-year cicadas and 12 broods of 17-year cicadas in the States, most of them mixtures of different Magicicada species, and each with its own breeding calendar. It is thought that their long life cycles, periodicity and synchronous emergence have evolved to protect these cicadas against predation. Stephen Jay Gould wrote engagingly about this strategy of 'predator satiation' in one of his monthly columns for Natural History Magazine, reprinted in his first collection of essays, Ever Since Darwin (1978: 97-102). 'Of bamboos, cicadas, and the economy of Adam Smith' linked the phenomenon of the periodical cicadas with the similary periodic and synchronous flowering of bamboos, and it was this botanical example that struck a chord when I first read it, rather than the evolutionary explanation that led Gould to summon the ghost of Adam Smith and his "invisible hand".

Many bamboos (subfamily Bambusoideae) are known to be plietesials, plants that grow for a number of years, flower gregariously, set seed and then die. Gould and his source, Daniel H. Janzen, had written about a Chinese bamboo, Phyllostachys reticulata (syn. P. bambusoides), that only flowers every 120 years or so. I didn't know what a plietsial life history was when I first read Gould's essay in Kenya in 1991, but I knew of at least one ethnographic report that suggested a connection between the periodic flowering of plants and the timing of circumcision and age-set rituals in the Rift Valley and adjacent Kenya Highlands. The plant in question is called setiot (setyot) by the Kipsigis and other Kalenjin speakers, and has been identified as Mimulopsis solmsii (family Acanthaceae) (Kokwaro 1976: 16). Blundell describes this as a trailing, woody plant with "pale blue to yellowish flowers", an "abundant herb of the forest floor in some areas; altitude range 1650-2550m (5500-8500 ft) and showing the phenomenon of mass flowering every five to nine years, after which it may be difficult to find it until it increases agains (1987: 395). Beentje has the flowers as "white or yellowish, often tinged with pink" (1994: 605). Here's an earlier description of periodic flowering on Mount Elgon, in which the flowers were white:

Mimulopsis solmsii Schweinf.
From 1948 to April 1964 we lived on the north-east slopes of Elgon near the forest boundary. Near the house was a patch of untouched virgin forest. I found it was carpeted with a tangle of plants with soft dark green leaves [...] These all flowered regularly each year, but I noticed among them a plant with very different leaves, which did not flower. Each year it grew taller and eventually flowered in December 1952 and January 1953. It proved to be Mimulopsis solmsii Schweinf. By then it was five feet tall and much branched. The flowers were white with a pale brown throat, and came out irregularly a few at a time. The inflorescence was covered with dull red sticky glandular hairs. It flowered in a mass over the whole forest at an altitude of 7,500 ft. to 8,200 ft. and smothered the usual undergrowth Acanthaceae completely. Eventually it died down, and its dead stems covered the ground and all the usual herbaceous plants were buried beneath it. Towards the end of the rainy season young seedlings appeared among the rotting stems, and more in the early rains the following year. By the end of 1954 the usual population of Acanthaceae had taken over, though in rather different proportions. Then the plants of Mimulopsis solmsii with their distinctive leaves began to appear again. In October 1961 they began to flower, and there was a mass flowering as before, followed by a similar dying down, and reappearance of the usual plant population. This gives a nine-year interval between one flowering and another, but I shall not be there in 1970 to see if the interval between flowerings is regular. (Tweedie 1965: 92-93)

The same author described two other Mimulopsis species on the mountain, one of which also certainly exhibited periodic flowering. Beentje (1994: 605) noted three members of the genus in Kenya that are reported to flower at long intervals: M. alpina, M. arborescens, and M. solmsii. It may be that the Kalenjin name refers to more than one species, but this remains to be established.

The colonial anthropologist G. W. B. Huntingford claimed that Nandi initiations were linked to the cycles of mass flowering:

According to Huntingford the opening of a period of circumcision "is fixed by the flowering of a bush called Setiot (Mimulopsis sp.)", a plant found in adjacent forest zones which blossoms spectacularly every seven or eight years (1953a: 62). All proceedings were organized in terms of 24 military/territorial units called pororosiek. When the setiot flowering had been observed, representatives from each area made offerings to the leading orgoiyot, or prophet, and sought his sanction to open the next round of circumcision ceremonies. Approval was announced by a further ceremony held separately in each area. Initiations were held for four years, then closed for several years. Three or four years after the next flowering of setiot, which occurred during the closed period, the saget ap eito ceremony came due, and with the second subsequent flowering the initiations were opened for the next age-set. (Daniels 1982: 8)

But this was strongly disputed by Ian Q. Orchardson, who was a fluent Kipsigis speaker:

Mimulopsis solmsii Schweinf.
It has been suggested that the number of years in an age set might be determined by means of a forest plant called Setiot. Setiot is a forest-loving plant with a rambling rather than a creeping habit. It is inconspicuous in the dense forest growth for a number of years, but gradually envelops the tree trunks and bushes to a height of from ten to fifteen feet with its long thin shoots. It flowers once and then dies. In the year in which it flowers it transforms the forest from an almost monotonous green foliage into a mass of tiny white flowers. It seems to flower one year later in Nandi than in Kipsigis. The setiot flowered in the Kipsigis forests in October and November 1926, probably in 1918 and almost certainly in 1910. These flowerings do not correspond with the sub-sets of the last thirty years. Most Kipsigis give nine years as the flowering cycle, but they always count inclusively so by the European method of counting the period would be eight years.

The flowering of the setiot does not regulate Kipsigis initiation; if it did the period covered by an age set would be 24 years, three sub-sets of eight years duration. Its only connection with initiation is that the ceremonies must not take place in the second year after the flowering of the setiot. At this time the young seedlings are just up and the plants are in a flimsy stage during which they sway with the slightest breeze. It is thought that anybody going to initiation at this time would partake of the same nature and even be afflicted with trembling or a sort of palsy. Such conditions are always attributed to this cause and explained by the expression kiwe setio - 'he went in the setiot'. The second year is called Karatet ('tender') and is preceded by the twig year (Sigorian), when the forest is a mass of dry dangerously inflammable twigs, and the year of the flower (Kinyit ap Taptet). The prohibition on initiation during the Karatet year also applies to all new enterprises such as the building of houses.

There are indications that, far from being a propitious plant, which it would be if closely connected with circumcision, it is the reverse. The common expression rat-setio means 'be a spectator, take no part, idly look on' but its literal meaning is tie setiot. Probably its present meaning has originated from the fact that, at many ceremonies, participants tie sacred plants about their persons or around the mabwaita, which mere spectators do not. In fact, spectators 'rat setio', 'they tie setiot', i.e. they tie nothing and are thus contrasted with those who tie the sacred plants and take an active part in the proceedings. Another plant, ikunggit, with an even longer flowering cycle than setiot, is associated with setiot in the Kipsigis mind. When both flower in the forest in the same year, it is said that a very large number of old people die. (Orchardson 1961: 12-13)

This argument is supported by the American anthropologist Robert E. Daniels in his unpublished papers on the Kalenjin age-sets:

Orchardson denies flatly that setiot flowerings regulate Kipsigis initiations. Instead he states that the association is that "ceremonies must not take place in the second year after the flowering" (1961:12) when it is feared that initiates might share the frailty of the new seedlings. Peristiany gives substantially the same information (1939:7). One of my informants, born before 1880, gave a similar explanation that initiations could not be held when the red flowers appeared for fear the initiates would hemorrhage, and Goldschmidt (1976:104) likewise reports that it was only when the plant was in flower (every five to seven years) that initiations could not be held. From everything else reported about scheduling important social events among the Kalenjin, I think it is clear that setiot flowerings were one of no doubt many omens considered and in no sense should be seen as "a botanical clock." (Daniels 1982: 8; also 1976: 7)

Note that in this account setiot is described as a red flower. According to botanist J. O. Kokwaro the Kipsigis setyot "has magical properties associated with circumcision and other rites which should not take place when this plant is flowering" (1976: 16). This has been reiterated by American missionaries working among the Kipsigis: "Initiation cermonies were not to be performed during the karatet year - the year after the flowering of the setyoot - a plant that blooms about every seven or eight years" (Fish and Fish 1995: 326).

Was Huntingford just plain wrong? Or was he describing a variant practice or belief among the Nandi? He was not alone in thinking that plietesial plants are good to think with and to model age-set periods on. A local historian claims that among the Meru of northeastern Mount Kenya the "theoretical duration of each government", the period of rule of an age-set, is "Fourteen years calculated on the basis of the life span of a mountainous plant called Muruuja" (M'Imanyara 1992: 27). This isn't identified in the text, though it might be noted that one Kenyan population of Mimulopsis solmsii is reported to have flowered after a 13-year interval, while M. alpina is said to flower once every 12 years (Beentje 1994: 605). We also know that the Meru and other Central Kenya Bantu originally took some of their age-set names and related practices from the Kalenjin and other Southern Nilotes (Ehret 1971: 139-140), and this may well have included ideas about these woody herbs. Among the Kikuyu it is recorded that M. alpina is a plant of ill-omen, and that only girls could be initiated when it was in flower (Gachathi 2007: 197). This echoes the Kipsigis reports, and suggests yet another case of divergence. Let me hasten to add, though, that I've only scratched the surface of the literature that might have a bearing on this question. I'd like to think that in some places Mimulopsis spp. were used as botanical clocks, but it may be that I'm allowing myself to be seduced by a model, and that the same happened to Huntingford, M'Imanyara, and/or their own sources.


Beentje, Henk 1994. Kenya Trees, Shrubs and Lianas. Nairobi. National Museums of Kenya.

Blundell, Michael 1987. Wild Flowers of East Africa. London: Collins.

Daniels, Robert E. 1976. Kipsigis age-sets: coordination without centralization. Paper presented at the 75th Annual Meeting of the African Studies Association, Washington, D.C., 7 November 1976.

Daniels, Robert E. 1982. The extent of age-set coordinaition among the Kalenjin. Paper presented at the 25th Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association, Washington, D.C., November 1976.

Fish, Burnette C. and Gerald W. Fish 1995. The Kalenjin Heritage: Traditional Religious and Social Practices. Kericho and Marion, Indiana: Africa Gospel Church and World Gospel Mission.

Gachathi, Muruga 2007. Kikuyu Botanical Dictionary: A Guide to Plant Names, Uses and Cultural Values (2nd edition). Gituamba: Tropical Botany.

Goldschmidt, Walter 1976. Culture and Behavior of the Sebei: A Study in Continuity and Adaptation. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Gould, Stephen Jay 1978 [1977]. Ever Since Darwin: Reflections in Natural History. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Huntingford, G. W. B. 1953. The Nandi of Kenya: Tribal Control in a Pastoral Society. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Janzen, Daniel H. 1976. Why bamboos wait so long to flower. Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics 7: 347-391.

Kokwaro, J. O. 1976. Medicinal Plants of East Africa. Nairobi: East African Literature Bureau.

M'Imanyara, Alfred M. 1992. The Restatement of Bantu Origin and Meru History. Nairobi: Longman Kenya.

Orchardson, Ian Q. 1961. The Kipsigis. Nairobi: Kenya Literature Bureau.

Peristiany, John G. 1939. The Social Institutions of the Kipsigis. London: George Routledge and Sons.

Tweedie, E. M. 1965. Periodic flowering of some Acanthaceae on Mt. Elgon. Journal of the East Africa Natural History Society 25 (2): 92-94.

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