This sweet, little plant grows in Jamaica and is fondly called “shame old lady” (Mimosa pudica). It grows low to the ground like ground cover (although it doesn’t seem to spread much) and looks like a kind of pressed fern with tiny oval leaves of dark and light shades of green making up the larger leaf with a stripe down the middle. When you touch it, the leaves quickly fold into themselves, withdrawing as though in pain. Your first thought might be that you’ve killed it; in fact, according to its name, you have shamed it.

When I was a child I loved to come across these little patches; there was hardly any child (nor many adults) who wouldn’t take delight in watching them shrivel at the touch of a finger or toe. Even a toddler could wield such power; it was a brief but heady moment.

As an adult it still gives me a thrill. The plant is not found in abundance, however, a few days ago I found a cluster of them on a sidewalk. I was a child again and squealed with delight, “Shame old lady!” I spent a few gleeful moments stooped touching every leaf, watching them recoil in disgrace. It was a gentle thrill, an earthy alternative to popping the bubbles in bubble wrap . However, even as I watched them shrink, the grown-up inside of me wondered how come the name? what would make someone name a plant “shame old lady”? A plant which closes when touched, shrinks rather than resists…shame old lady.

It made me think of shape-shifting, the temporary changes in physical form that people and animals go through in fairy tales, folklore and fantasy fiction. But a shape-shifting plant? Most unusual. A plant growing prostrate on the ground has little chance against a shod foot. This voluntary shape-shifting is her defense. In giving the plant its common name, the namer was likely evoking (and it was very likely a man, woman botanists are rare) an image of the old woman as one without resource, irrelevant and who, by the stroke of a finger, could be reshaped, and largely made invisible.

Is it a shame to be old? shame to be a lady? shame on you lady! old lady, full of shame!

Often used as a plot device: a princess takes on a bear shape to flee; a cat turns into a mouse in order to enter the hole, shape-shifting is often associated with escape and liberation. In real life, some animals’ best defense is to mimic other creatures or change their body shape. There is strength in knowing one’s limitations, wisdom in pulling back and choosing to make oneself smaller and less visible when threatened. As I stooped over the shrunken leaves I touched the plant again, knowing that there was nothing I could do to encourage the return to her original shape. Therein lies her power. You go old lady!
copywright © 2008 by Pamela Groves (p.e.groves)


2 Responses to “shame-old-lady”

  1. April 24, 2009 at 11:30

    Very well written!
    This was my favorite plant when I went to Jamaica. Here in the USA it is more commonly known as the TickleMe Plant because it really moves fast when you Tickle It!
    The leaves instantly close and even the branches droop when tickled. I was so happy to find the TickleMe Plant Greenhouse on line. It contains everything to grow your own TickleMe Plant. Every time I tickle the leaves and watch them move I long to go back to Jamaica.

  2. 2 Tanya
    December 19, 2009 at 17:05

    My mom and i love them also.

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“If stories come to you, care for them. And learn to give them away where they are needed. Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive.” —Barry Lopez
“‘Thou shalt not’ is soon forgotten, but ‘Once upon a time’ lasts forever.” Phillip Pullman

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