Buried Nitrogen: The Venus Vignettes

By Sandra Barnidge

There’s a new ice cream place in town that’s located conveniently (dangerously) close to both my daughter’s favorite playground and a plant nursery. Every few days, we make a loop that starts at “the bumpy slide,” then passes through the nursery, and then—if you’re good, if you don’t fuss while Mommy looks around—ends at the ice-cream shop for a not-so-small cup of rainbow-colored vanilla.

During our last visit to the nursery, I was in search of something to liven up a patch of blank clay-dirt in my backyard. I was feeling a little dejected about the state of that particular bit of empty earth; I’d thrown all manner of wildflower seeds on top of it, tucked in various bulbs, and even transplanted a few unlucky forget-me-not seedlings. Nothing took. Nothing, so far, could manage to break through the clay, settle in, and bloom.

At the nursery, I spotted a cheery little shrub with petite purple blooms. The tag read Mexican heather, and the price was less than a cup of ice cream. I didn’t know anything about any kind of heather, much less a Mexican one, but I figured it would be cute for a few weeks in the empty spot until it, too, inevitably died in that hopeless dirt. In the car, I let my daughter hold it with sticky pink-and-blue fingers. At home, I planted it in the blank space just before the sky opened up to rain.

Here’s the thing about Mexican heather: it isn’t, in fact, a heather at all. Cuphea hyssopifolia, the plant I bought on a whim, is native to Central America and naturalized in many other tropical places. It’s in the same plant family as pomegranates and henna and crape myrtles. In traditional medicine, it’s useful for reducing fevers, coughs, and abdominal pain.

Yet despite having so much appeal in its own right, Cuphea hyssopifolia is saddled with a decidedly underwhelming English common name. When it’s not called Mexican heather, it’s known as “false heather,” which is so brutally, unfairly lame. There is nothing false about the dozens of tiny, detailed purple flowers that thread along its sturdy, frond-like branches.

And so, I went in search of a better name, a truer name. I flipped over to Spanish-language Wikipedia and Youtube, and sure enough, I found it: Cuphea hyssopifolia is known among gardeners in Mexico as Trueno de Venus.

Thunder of Venus. Now that is a name worthy of the small-yet-mighty new beauty in my garden.


A lifetime ago, I met my now-husband in graduate school. After only four months of dating, I packed one bag and hopped on a plane to Europe with him. We spent eight weeks traveling from Ireland to Croatia, with a lengthy stop in Italy along the way.

In Florence, we endured an excessively long in-peak-heat July to visit the Uffizi Gallery. We shuffled along with a large crowd past centuries of artworks, and I began to wilt from dehydrated exhaustion. I found one open spot on a rare bench and collapsed. Adjacent to me happened to be Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, the immaculate feminine born of the sea and sailing toward land on a giant open clamshell. Her serenity gave me the strength to stand up again and embrace the rest of the museum. To appreciate the opportunity to explore.

Botticelli’s model for the clamshell Venus was a noblewoman named Simonetta Cattaneo Vespucci, who was probably from Genoa but possibly from a small city called Porto Venere—Venus Harbour.

Simonetta Cattaneo Vespucci, nicknamed “La Bella Simonetta” at the Medici court. A name that rumbles off the tongue like thunder.


I have a book coming out. 

Wait, let’s try that again — do me a favor, would you, and read this next bit out loud in your most booming, reverberating voice: I HAVE A BOOK! 

It’s finally happening. My debut, genre-bending novel is officially forthcoming in 2025 from Belle Point Press, an indie based in Fort Smith, Arkansas. The book is called The Diamondbacks, and it’s about sports fandom and religious zealotry in a troubled small town. It’s about forgiveness, too, and bringing Southern culture into better alignment with the natural world. Mostly, though, it’s about an intrepid little girl who grows up in the complicated shadow of her imperfect but not irredeemable father.

The little girl in my book is named Terra, not Venus, but here’s something unexpected: Aphrodite Terra happens to be the name of one of the three continental regions on the planet Venus. It’s a large land mass, almost half the size of the continent of Africa, with mountain ridges and deep valleys. Across its two largest plateaus stretch wide, winding rivers of petrified lava.


A couple of years after graduate school, I went back to Europe with the same guy who traveled with me the first time. In Vienna, we moved into a drab 100-year-old apartment built during the city’s communist period, complete with a crooked kitchen and a toilet in a closet.

Every day for the next year, I sat down to write at a white, wobbly table by the window. My view overlooked a prettier building, half of it painted purple, with a statue of a woman holding a lyre carved into the corner. Looking back, she was my true muse through the first draft of what eventually, later, became The Diamondbacks once we moved to Alabama. But at the time, a different carved woman spoke more loudly to my heart: the Venus of Willendorf.

Visiting that ancient, four-inch statuette of a nude, full-figured Paleolithic woman in Vienna’s Natural History Museum delighted me. I became obsessed with the history of it for a time, though I initially missed last year’s news, when scientists announced they’d subjected the Venus to a CT scan. They found evidence to suggest she’d been crafted not along the Danube as originally assumed, but instead she’d come from much farther south, in northern Italy.

Her journey to the river muck in northeastern Austria was likely gradual, happening over generations of migrations. Put another way, it took a lot of miles—a lot of time—for the Venus of Willendorf to find the place where she’d make a lasting name for herself.


A coincidence, from the first chapter of my book (my book, MY book, how incredible that phrase still sounds): “I spotted a tiny purple flower growing up from a crack in the concrete, and I thought about how stubborn some little seeds can be.”

Hello, little Thunder.

Hello, all my Venuses.

Read more of Sandra’s work here at Reckon.

Sandra K. Barnidge

Sandra K. Barnidge is an Alabama-based writer with a passion for small towns and overlooked places. Her fiction leans speculative and has appeared in Barren, Nimrod, The Fiddlehead, Reckon Review, Reservoir Ridge, and elsewhere. sandrabarnidge.com