While wandering the unbelievable expanse of the Boboli Gardens in Florence, we were treated to a sampling platter of hydrangea varieties. We saw the typical "mophead" inflorescence, the "lacecap" (which I had never seen before and was immediately enchanted by), and a variegated plant that had not yet bloomed, referred to as "chimera". Chimera simply means that the plant has cells from more than one genotype growing next to each other in its tissue due to a mutation, and variegation is the most common expression of this mutation. In a variegated plant, some of the cells are unable to produce chlorophyll and are white or pale green in color, depending on their ability and location in the layers of tissue in the plant. To reproduce this coloring, the plant must be propagated vegetatively, which means you must take a cutting and plant it as a new plant.
This mutation is referred to as chimera because the first plant was observed and propagated in Florence, in the Boboli Gardens. When you discover something, you get to name it whatever you want. Thus, the name chimera is significant to Tuscany and a reference to one of the best known pieces of Etruscan art. The chimera was a creature from Greek mythology composed of a lion's body with a goat's head emerging from its back and a snake instead of a tail. (I know, it sounds like something that would show up in your nightmares.) This work of art was discovered in 1533 in Arezzo and cleaned up by Cosimo Medici I, who was ruling Tuscany at the time. It now sits in the National Archaeology Museum in Florence.
The chimera is a symbol of the region and a fitting name for this plant phenomenon.When we saw the replica of the statue in Arezzo, I was struck by how unnatural yet strikingly beautiful it was. I imagine the first discoverers of the chimera mutation in plants felt the same way! Just like the chimera statue is made of three completely different animal species, the cells of plants exhibiting this coloring pattern are an array of different genotypes and mutations, contributing to a look that is both unique and beautiful.