Monthly Archives: September 2012

Peaceful coexistence: Cistus monspeliensis– narrow-leaved rockrose. (And the biologist Steven Rose)

Peaceful coexistence* has been in short supply in a week which has seen protests against an anti-Islamic film no-one has watched reach murderous heights, and the continuing civil war in Syria. No,  I haven’t decided to make this a political blog – just that the theme of coexistence seemed to emerge from the content that I’d planned.

Firstly, the plant: Cistus monspeliensis. Like most of the many species in the Cistus genus, this is a low shrub mostly seen in the borderlands between the Mediterranean plain and the mountains, in the dry garrigue and the sauveplaine (wooded plateau).  The petals of the flowers look like crumpled tissue paper, and only last one day. This species, first described near Montpellier, is one of the smallest and lowest, and is distinguished by the long narrow leaves which give it its name.

The name Cistus comes from the same root as chest, meaning that the seed capsule is like a little box (not very like, in my opinion). Rose originally meant any beautiful flower, not necessarily like a member of the Rosa genus. So you have Corn Rose (=poppy) and Rose of Sharon (= a Hypericum species from Sharon in Israel). Keeping this connection to the Middle East, species of Cistus were among the first plants brought back from the Eastern Mediterranean to Western Europe in the 17th century by the early plant collectors (such as Pierre Belon), including C. creticus, which produces a fragrant gum called ladanum, one of the components of myrrh. I’ll come back to this topic with other rockrose species.

The production of gum or oil is just one of the clever adaptations of this species to very dry rocky hillsides. Many species develop associations between their roots and a truffle fungus of the Tuber family. This is mutually beneficial: the fungus gets the nutrients produced by the plant, and the plant benefits from the wide-ranging fungal threads and their ability to extract minerals from very poor soil. The fungus also produces a toxin which inhibits other plants from germinating, giving the Cistus a clear field.

One oddity of Cistus is that its seeds are very water-resistant, and so can’t absorb water to germinate unless they have been first cracked open by heat, usually from a wild fire. Thus after a fire when all else has been frazzled and cleared, the seedlings again have a clear field. In fact Cistus is so successful that the white-flowered species are often parasitised by another plant, Cytinus hypocistus, which lacks chlorophyll.

I’m also using the rose connection to present some of the ideas of a biologist I very much admire, Steven Rose, Open University Professor of Biology and Neurobiology.  He has been a longstanding opponent of the use of genetics as a simple explanation, for example in psychology, and was a co-writer of the radical book Not in our genes (1984). Why is he – a biochemist researching memory –  in a botany blog? Because I think that, like Stephen Jay Gould (a friend and colleague of Rose’s), he explains evolution and how all living things grow in a more convincing way than most (there’s a video of Gould doing that here). I wish that I’d been taught by Rose (born 1938) when I went to university to study physiology in 1970, since he answers many of the objections I felt then to reductionist science.

In his book Lifelines (1997) – which I recommend strongly –   he outlines his approach of seeing every organism, plant and animal, as having an evolutionary and developmental history – a lifeline – without which its present biology cannot be understood. He quotes the geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky: ‘Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution’. He views the genes as only part of the inherited DNA (a view amply borne out recently by the Encode project), and achieving expression only in cooperation with the biochemistry of the cell – and beyond that, with the wider environment. His analogy is that the DNA may be the sheet music, but the cell contains the orchestra which must interpret it. This puts him on a collision course with those he calls ‘ultra Darwinists’ such as Richard Dawkins (author of The Selfish Gene, among other titles), who view the gene as paramount, as if it were a CD and the body merely a machine for playing and copying it, like a CD player. This emerges in a video I found (here) of the two of them debating on a balcony poised high above Tate Modern’s turbine hall.


I watched, anxious that one might become so angry he would push the other off – particularly because in Lifelines Rose uses the metaphor of a cliff to describe reductionism (the idea that biology can be reduced to biochemistry, that to chemistry, and then that to physics) and imagines that Dawkins has wandered off this cliff.   Luckily Rose doesn’t try to demonstrate to Dawkins the literal truth of this image, and in fact what we get is peaceful coexistence between scientists.

To conclude by returning to the political dimension: Rose was brought up in a Jewish family, but says he became an atheist at the age of 8. He has interpreted the application of Marxist ideas to biology, and came to controversial prominence recently by calling for an academic boycott of Israel, arguing that Israeli universities discriminated against Israeli Palestinians and collaborated with the Israeli Army.

* The phrase was coined by Khruschev, the leader of the USSR after Stalin, during a visit to Britain in 1956.  He said: ‘You do not like Communism.   We do not like capitalism.   There is only one way out – peaceful co-existence’. This was before the Cuban crisis – probably not the first example of the gap between words and deeds of politicians.

The music: I thought longer and harder about this than usual. I’ve decided on a track from the remarkable album Blue Camel, by the oud player Rabih Abou-Khalil. He was born and brought up in Beirut, then went to Germany and now lives in France. The musicians on the album include the Anglo-Canadian Kenny Wheeler on trumpet, Americans Charlie Mariano on sax and Steve Swallow on bass, and Puerto Rican Milton Cardona on congas, among others. It’s a really successful fusion, all players in touch with both their reflective and swinging sides: musical coexistence. I recommend the whole album, but here’s one of the more upbeat, jazzier numbers, Tsarka.


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Filed under Cistus

Light and dark: Mirabilis jalapa – Belle de nuit


My neighbour and I were very happy to discover this plant growing at the foot of the wall of the garage that we share, and since then we’ve been looking after it tenderly. It’s an unusual flower coloration for our village – almost all others are red or yellow, and you can have both on the same plant.   It seems to love cracks at the edges of roads or pavements, growing up fast in mid to late summer and in full bloom at the moment. The plants grow from tubers, like dahlias, and can also reseed, thus quickly becoming invasive once established. It’s a garden escapee, now naturalised.

One English name is the four o’clock flower, and the blooms do indeed open late in the afternoon –  earlier on grey days  –  and stay open all night to attract moths. The plant originates in Peru, and this nocturnal habit is an adaptation which is more common there or in Mexico (Jalapa is a Mexican town), where temperatures can be too hot for a flower in the daytime.

The plant has some significance to botany since it was studied by Carl Correns, who was one of the rediscoverers of Mendel’s genetic laws in 1900. Correns researched into the causes of the variegated leaves of some plants of M. jalapa and showed that the white mottling was a characteristic inherited from the seed (‘mother’) plant, rather than from the pollinating plant.  This was the first demonstration of cytoplasmic inheritance: the fact that all sexually reproducing organisms from pine trees to humans inherit DNA from both male and female parents, but can also inherit factors in the cell from the female line only.  In the case of plants, this inheritance includes the cellular organelles called chloroplasts containing the chlorophyll which turns sunlight into sugars, and gives all plants their green colour. The fact that some cells in leaves of M. jalapa lose their chloroplasts and their colour is due to such a cytoplasmic factor.

Light and dark. I’d like to play At the dark end of the street (1967), sung by James Carr (1942-2001). He was a powerful and moving soul singer, and this performance of a song written by Chips Moman and Dan Penn is his masterpiece – one of the few records I think of as perfect, unimprovable.  Unfortunately Carr seemed unable to cope with his success in the late 60s, and made few further records.   For the rest of his life he engaged in a long struggle with bipolar disorder.

Coming up next: a bunch of roses.


Filed under Uncategorized

The Toadflax Saga – episode two

In tonight’s episode: a long-lost cousin turns up, Lin gets called a monster by a Swede, Charles reverts to type, and alternative views of life battle for the Gould medal.

(If that’s all too much, skip to the end for a film on the dangers of wearing a large cardboard saxophone in public)


Before diving into the tangled story of Linaria again, here’s the cousin: a similar plant which has also been reclassified by botanists. It’s Misopates orontium, known in English not very flatteringly as Weasel’s Snout, also as Lesser Snapdragon – which is not a surprise because it used to be in the Antirrhinum (snapdragon) genus. These family and name changes remind me of soap-opera storylines: I can imagine the reclassified species crying:  ‘But I just don’t know who I am anymore!’

 Linaria and the snapdragons have had cameo roles to play in the long-running story of evolution (Beast-enders? Sorry). It all started with the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus  (1707-78, above), Professor of Medicine at Uppsala University, and perhaps  the most important biologist  of the 18th century.  In a colossal labour he brought together all that was known about plants in the whole world till that point, and if that wasn’t enough he included all animals as well in his great monument, the binomial system of names for all living things (i.e. genus  and species ).

In 1742 a botanical student named Liöberg  found, growing on an island near Stockholm, a plant whose flowers resembled those of Linaria vulgaris but which instead of being symmetrical either side of a vertical plane (known as zygomorphic), were radially symmetrical (or actinomorphic), having five equal petals and five spurs.  Here is a photo of a modern version, from a blog which tells this story too – well  worth a look here.


Eventually this conundrum came the way of Linnaeus, who was most discomfited by the discovery, since he believed strongly that all species were created separately by God and hence could not change.  He assumed it must be a hybrid with an unknown plant and in 1744 called the plant Peloria – the Greek for ‘monster’. The example was discussed by Charles Darwin over a century later, when he had  studied the snapdragon (Antirrhinum majus) in detail : the members of this similar genus also hybridise easily and show occasional radial symmetry. Darwin showed that peloric flowers were not hybrids but bred true, and published his findings in 1868 in The variation of plants and animals under domestication .  He regarded it as a possible reversion to a previous evolutionary stage, describing it as:

… an actual, though partial, return to the structure of the ancient progenitor of the group. If this view be correct, we must believe that a vast number of characters, capable of evolution, lie hidden in every organic being. But it would be a mistake to suppose that the number is equally great in all beings. We know, for instance, that plants of many orders occasionally become peloric; but many more cases have been observed in the Labiatæ and Scrophulariaceæ than in any other order; and in one genus of the Scrophulariaceæ, namely Linaria, no less than thirteen species have been described in a peloric condition.  On this view of the nature of peloric flowers, and bearing in mind what has been said with respect to certain monstrosities in the animal kingdom, we must conclude that the progenitors of most plants and animals, though widely different in structure, have left an impression capable of redevelopment on the germs of their descendants.

(The variation of plants and animals under domestication [1868] , Ch. 13, available here)

Later still, when the science of genetics had developed, it was assumed that the ‘monster’ of radial symmetry or ‘pelorism’ was due to the mutation of a gene.  Recently it has been shown that in fact vertically symmetrical (zygomorphic) and peloric flowers have the same genes, and the difference is in how they are controlled by ‘an extensive, heritable methylation of the gene’( more detail here).

This is the sort of half-chance that can be seized on by anyone with an anti-Darwin axe to grind.  For example, by Googling Linaria and evolution I came across a website apparently about Darwin, and on it a blog post for April 3rd 2011 (here),  in which the author recounts the Peloria story but concludes that since the genes are the same in peloric and non-peloric plants there is no mutation and hence ‘the foundational evidence for evolution is a legacy of facade and outright fraud.’ Despite the author’s  having a biological degree, this seems to be because he has confused the fact that one gene is identical in the two plants, with the idea that the whole DNA of the two forms is identical – well, that combined with misunderstanding of how science develops and some wilful bias. He concludes that: ‘The Linaria story highlights why evolution, while once a theory in crisis during the twentieth century, is now in crisis without a theory’.

Though in the story he tells he makes it clear he is nostalgic for the days of Linnaeus’s religious beliefs, the name of the site, the nature of the posts, and his account of himself appear scientific and do not mention a religious view. In his section about himself the author writes that his site:

….  presents the history of evolution with a time-line of discoveries, people, and ideas. With over a century of unprecedented biological research since the publication of The Origin of Species, now is the time to reflect on the scientific evidence of evolution. This blog is a forum for focusing on one of today’s hottest and contentious topics – evolution.

I can imagine a school student looking for essay material helping  themselves to a lot of this – I was a psychology lecturer and I know all about cut-and-paste essays.  The concealment of  the real purpose of  blogs like this seems to me to be both deliberate and  dishonest:  hoping to attract students and steer them towards unfounded opinions and wilful misinterpretations which masquerade as scientific evidence written by a scientist.

This author is not the only one – his ‘Reference Library’ gives a list of people who have published religious tracts dressed up as respectable science – I have come across some  before, for example a man who has put biology videos on Youtube which don’t mention his real agenda.

All this subterfuge is not accidental.  A couple of posts ago I mentioned Stephen Jay Gould and his unwavering campaign, together  with the American Civil Liberties Union, against the teaching of creationism in schools. Promoters of the literal truth of Genesis used to have American law on their side:  all teaching of evolution in schools was banned till as recently as 1968, when the proscription was overturned.  However, even then, as Gould notes in this article,  biology textbook publishers continued to cater for the religious market by not mentioning evolution in books aimed at schools – so that he himself, one of the theory’s most eloquent exponents, could not study it until he went to college.  From that point the only channel left open to creationists was to present their ideas as ‘science’ and to demand time on the science curriculum – a strategy tried in Arkansas and defeated in court in 1981 with the aid of Gould on the witness stand.  The battle is far from over and clearly this strategy of deception is still the path of a many producers of professional-looking internet resources.

I leave the last words to Gould:

The argument that the literal story of Genesis can qualify as science collapses on three major grounds: the creationists’ need to invoke miracles in order to compress the events of the earth’s history into the biblical span of a few thousand years; their unwillingness to abandon claims clearly disproved, including the assertion that all fossils are products of Noah’s flood; and their reliance upon distortion, misquote, half-quote, and citation out of context to characterize the ideas of their opponents. [Stephen Jay Gould, “The Verdict on Creationism”, The Skeptical Inquirer, Winter 87/88, pg. 186]

Now, that saxophone: I was overjoyed to find that the cleverly named Polish band Pink Freud have released a video which just seems made for this blog post:

Coming up next: a lovely flower, a short write-up, and a perfect song.



Filed under Linaria, Misopates

It’s a family affair: Linaria arvensis? (toadflax)


Leaving the question mark to one side for the moment, let’s deal with the names. The toad is an animal I left till the end of the last post, and it’s another derogatory name-calling thing – it’s a good job plants can’t argue back or we’d be deafened on any country walk.  Grigson says ‘toadflax’ (as a name for Linaria vulgaris) came from William Turner’s  1548 translation of the German Krottenflachs – a ‘wild, useless flax, a flax for toads’. Linaria means ‘like the linen or flax plant’, and arvensis just means ‘of the fields’.

Linaria in a corner of the garden

It is a small (a few millimetres long) and relatively insignificant flower – one French website says it passes almost unnoticed due to the slenderness of its stem and the paleness of its flowers – but my efforts to identify it made me learn about many different things: recent DNA research, the trustworthiness of both books and the internet, the way evolution is ongoing, a puzzle for the great Swedish botanist Linnaeus, and the hidden presence of anti-Darwin creationists. So the length of this post is out of all proportion to that of the flowers. So much so, in fact, that I’ve decided to split it into two parts, with the next one in a couple of days.

I’ve had problems with the identification of this plant – and I’m far from the only one.  When I saw the leaves in spring I thought it was a spurge (Euphorbia, probably cyparissias) because of the pinkish stems and whorls of slender greyish leaves.  Then the flowers appeared a few weeks ago and they were clearly snapdragon-like, apparently one of the Scrophulariaceae (figwort) family. The flowers most resemble toadflax – the Linaria genus – but I couldn’t pin it down to any one species,  and then I found that Linaria has been reallocated lock stock and barrel to another family, Plantaginaceae, the plantains, which it doesn’t resemble at all.  What’s going on?


Whole Linaria plant measured on the kitchen table – leaves more like spurge than toadflax

This is a result of new DNA research updating the old classification which had been based on morphology, or appearance.  Studies which analysed DNA sequences of these plants about ten years ago showed that the Scrophulariaceae family was in fact composed of five distinct lineages (monophyletic groups is the technical term), and the largest number have been told to go and join the plantains.  ‘Ah’ said Chaiselongue insightfully, ‘they were adopted, and they’ve been told to go back to their natural parents’. That’s more or less it, and the genera leaving their adopted home and arriving chez  Plantain  include Antirrhinum (snapdragons proper), Anarrhinum (similar), Linaria (toadflaxes), Cymbalaria (ivy-leafed toadflaxes), Digitalis (foxgloves) and Veronica (speedwells).

This is a cautionary tale for amateur botanists – like me – because the flower guides are not properly updated. My main references (Wild Flowers of the Mediterranean by Blamey and Grey-Wilson [2008], and La nature méditerranéenne by Martin [2011]) were published after this revision of families but don’t show it.  Neither does the tela botanica website. How should you check? The best source to go to is the one used by professionals: the Plant List – – which is a project jointly led by Kew Gardens and the Missouri Botanic Gardens to produce ‘a working list of all plant species’. All details for these sources are in the ‘Resources’ section of this blog – see the tab at the top.

Linaria flower measured, showing spur (scale in cm/mm)

The need for caution doesn’t stop there. The flower colour of my plant is like L. repens, but the small size of the flowers is more like L. arvensis or micrantha; the spur, a characteristic backward projection from the lower petals, is short and straight like L. simplex, but those flowers are yellow. Checking names and photos between books and websites such as the above and also the useful, I found that several sites which use photos uploaded by the public have many errors – well, there were huge differences between the pictures, sometimes on the same site, and they can’t all be right. These sites are evidently not edited or supervised, and any information is only as good as the last uploading amateur.  In another example of disagreement, the Wikipedia  entry says there are 100 species of Linaria, but the Plant List gives only 29 accepted species, among no less than  642 commonly used species names, most awaiting scrutiny. Linaria is a confusing genus.

There are reasons for this, and as I used to tell my students (I was a psychology lecturer) confusion is an advance, a stage in learning: first you think you know, then you get confused, then you know better, or at least see the limits of your knowledge.  Digging around on Google I found several research papers on Linaria which pointed out how easily different species hybridise, or cross, with each other – aided in part by the fact that the plants are not self-fertile, they have to cross with another individual (a feature noted in plants by Darwin as favouring  variety and hence evolution).  In 1948 the botanist Dilleman went as far as to call the whole genus ‘promiscuous’, after noting in the Paris Botanical Gardens that L. purpurea hybridised with members of any neighbouring Linaria species.  ‘How does this happen’, you may ask, ‘I thought species couldn’t interbreed, isn’t that the whole definition of a species?’

Well yes, it is part of the definition: that’s what happens eventually as species diverge. This crossing between species is a sign that Linaria is in the middle of the evolutionary process of diverging: one set of researchers comment: ‘despite marked morphological differentiation, species divergence within Linaria is relatively recent and reproductive isolation has not yet fully evolved’ ( Ward et al., 2009, here). The species we see now diverged from their parent stock probably in the last few million years, which is recent by evolutionary standards.

Where does all this leave us with my rather insignificant weed? Well, I believe it may be a cross, or it may be a species for which I have not as yet found an illustration. Anyone with any suggestions is very welcome to leave me a comment.  But I am comforted by the confusion of others with this genus, for example that of Linnaeus in an important story about evolution which I’m going to tell in the next instalment. I’ll also be looking into the hidden agendas of some biology websites.

Following the genetic theme I’m looking for family-related music. First off, here’s the newish voice on the jazz scene, Gregory Porter, and his song Real good hands, with love to two of my readers. I recommend listening to any of his stuff you can find – he has one of the best male voices to appear on the scene in a long time, and he writes terrific songs.

Coming up very soon: a mutation discovered in Sweden and an aberration on the internet.



Filed under Linaria

Man’s best friends: Bupleurum fruticosum (shrubby hare’s ear)


This is flowering everywhere at the moment. Well, everywhere in the garrigue – sorry, I’m getting a bit Midi-centric. Its great banks of yellow flower-heads stand out as much as the deep green of its glossy leaves when all around is dry, papery and straw-like. Bupleurum is quite a big genus but this is the only species I’ve identified so far, perhaps because it’s so  bushily obvious – it’s the only shrub species.


I’m using it as an introduction to wondering about the use of animals in plant names, and this one is a bit of a puzzle. ‘Bupleurum’ means ox flank (remember the ‘bu’ of bugloss, meaning ox tongue? Post of 11th May).  Why should this be applied to this plant? No-one seems to know. My guess is that the great bushes might seem as big as the bodies of oxen.  The leaves do look like hare’s ears – well, a bit.

This plant name belongs to a group which uses animal names in a descriptive way, often with a touch of affectionate whimsy: think of harebells and foxgloves. This seems most common with wild animals – when we get to Man’s best friends, the domesticated animals, the picture seems to change.  A hierarchy emerges in which some animals appear much more equal than others. Near the top of the dung-heap, poultry gets off quite lightly: fat hen is a good salad, chickweed is a small flower which is pecked by chickens, henbane (see post for 4th August ) is a warning of poison.

Introducing a note of distaste, Geoffrey Grigson points out that in English the use of ‘horse ’in plant names ‘frequently indicates some  coarse differentiating quality’ e.g. horse-mint, horseradish, which could be seen as admiration of the size and power of the horse. Horsetail is purely descriptive.


Rosa canina – dog rose

Then if you want to show that a plant is definitely second-rate, pick your closest cottage companion: a dog-rose is unworthy of the cottage garden, even in Latin (Rosa canina).  Dog-violet and dog’s mercury both also take their names from the Latin versions (Viola  and Mercurialis canina) because the violet was not scented and the mercury was thought not as medicinal as M.annua. The pretty blue Muscari  comosum is called  ail des chiens (dog garlic) in French, presumably because you just can’t make a good sauce with it. Wild asparagus is espargue de chin (dog asparagus) in Occitan, because judged second to the cultivated variety (though I like the wild spears better).


Muscari comosum – tassel hyacinth

But it could be worse – further down the pecking order from the pecking and the barking comes the grunting. Pig, sow or hog in a name usually mean fit only for swine: hogweed, sow thistle, pignut. I mentioned the other day(21st August) that ‘purslane’ may have come originally from a pork-related derogatory word. At first I thought this apparent disrespect  for the animals on which peasant farmers depend was rather ungrateful, but I realise that there was a hierarchy in the subsistence economy of the rural household: what humans could eat, they ate.  What was left went to the dogs and chickens.  What could be foraged for free in the hills could go to the pigs. Nothing was wasted.

And the donkey – because yes, you can get lower than a hog .  Perhaps because it’s a poor version of a horse, perhaps because they will eat anything, and especially in Occitan, the donkey gets the rawest deal.  The thistles in the Cirsium genus are lo cardon d’ase in Occitan, and the Eryngium campestre  (29th August)is pan blanc d’ase.   Oddly, in Oc an aubergine is not something you’d find in an auberge, but a viet d’ase – a donkey’s penis.  Ok, perhaps you’d find that at an auberge too – but maybe outside.

For all you need to know about the different styles of expressivity in Paris and in my village, I’ll give in full my favourite entry in the lexicon Las plantas , which gives plant names in French and Occitan:

algue microscopique: flottant à la surface des eaux stagnantes, genre diatomée. La mèrda de grapaud.

In plain English – toad shit.

Some animal music for you: first, Rufus Thomas and a remake of the original record (which I couldn’t find on video):

Now the poultry:

and the canines:

If anyone can think of a song about donkeys which is acceptable family viewing, let me know.


Filed under Bupleurum