Shreyan Mitra '23
I began listening to Eastern European songs long before Eastern Europe was a topic of daily discussion. Nowadays I chuckle to myself as I look up Ukrainian folk songs that I’ve known for over two years and see them blowing up on YouTube. It’s entertaining and somewhat comforting when I can just speak the first line of a song and my friends enthusiastically reply, “Oh yeah, that one!” Perhaps you are riding this “Ukraine hype” wave, discovering new things every day about the Eurasian steppe, its people, its culture, its history, and its identity. With the advent of spring, there’s one aspect of that identity that you may find useful in your philosophical debates regarding the uniqueness and beauty of the home of the Мати Русі.
See if you can find anything special in the first line of this song (first link below):
Ой, у лузі червона калина, похилилася.
Here’s the Romanization: “Oi, u luzi chervona kalyna, pokhylylasya”
And the translation: “Oh, in the meadow, the red viburnum, has bent down low”
Not seeing anything yet? That’s fine. Have a go at this one (second link below):
Хай цвіте, хай цвіте, червона калина…
“Khai tsvite, khai tsvite, chervona kalyna…”
“May it bloom, may it bloom, the red viburnum…”
See it now?
Although the sunflower—a modest but beautiful choice—is the national flower of Ukraine, another flowering plant holds a special place in the hearts of many Ukrainians. Sunflowers, known as “sonyashnyky” (соняшники), are a symbol for peace, partnering with the wheat to face the sunrise that gives Ukraine’s flag its trademark golden color. Ukraine is also the world’s largest producer of sunflower seeds, which also happen to be popular in both Ukraine and Russia, where they are eaten roasted as “semechki” (семечки). Anyway, enough about sunflowers.
You may have noticed that both songs mention the “червона калина,” or the red viburnum. If you consult Google right now, you may notice that “Viburnum” is an entire genus and not a specific plant. In this case, Ukrainians refer to Viburnum opulus as the red viburnum. English speakers colloquially call this plant the guelder-rose. “Guelder” comes from the Dutch province “Gelderland” where V. opulus supposedly originated. The flowers are white and come in decently sized clumps—don’t ask me why we call them roses.
And the guelder-rose’s cultural significance doesn’t just stop at Ukrainian folk songs. The general insignia of the Armed Forces of Ukraine sports a pair of arching red viburnum branches. In the world-famous Russian folk song Калинка (“Kalinka”) (third link below), the singer expresses his admiration for the snowball tree—another name for V. opulus. The word “kalinka” itself is a diminutive of “kalina.”
Калинка, калинка, калинка моя!/В саду ягода малинка, малинка моя!
“Kalinka, kalinka, kalinka, moya!/F sadu yagoda malinka malinka moya!”
“Viburnum, viburnum, viburnum of mine!/In the garden, small berry, small berry of mine!”
Slavic paganism, which existed far before Ukraine or Russia but was practiced by the ancestor of both countries, has many meanings for the guelder-rose. One legend ascribes the plant an important role in the creation of the universe. More practically, the red berries stand for home, birthplace, blood, and family roots. In Russian, “kalina” comes from the verb “калить” (kalit’) which means “to make red-hot.” In a romantic sense, both Ukrainians and Russians view the berries as a symbol of the love and beauty of a young lady. Artistic renditions of the plants are common on traditional ceremonial clothing and the Russian “khokhloma” (хохлома) painting style.
If you want to show your support for Ukraine or peace in general (I would suggest the latter), you can plant guelder-roses at home! V. opulus is naturalized in North America and is a non-invasive species. The flowers bloom in late spring and the berries are at their peak in the fall. In case you want to eat them (or make kalyna jelly from them), be careful not to overindulge—guelder-rose berries are mildly acidic and can be toxic if eaten in excess.
A final tidbit of symbolism: the bitterness that comes with eating the berries is generally seen as the grief that comes with romantic separation. Perhaps someday, when this chaos is all over, those berries might be ever so slightly sweeter.
Links to songs: