Monthly Archives: April 2013

Fitting in – the lifestyles of plants

Evening primrose - Oenothera biennis in June 2012

Evening primrose – Oenothera biennis in June 2012

On the way to the next village last summer I slipped into my new, dangerous, botanical habit: driving with only one eye on the road, and the other on the roadside verges, ditches and banks. I was surprised to see, in a recently cleared drainage ditch, some tall stems with blowsy yellow flowers: evening primrose (Oenothera biennis). There aren’t any others nearby, and I wondered how it got there till I read that it’s a pioneer plant, meaning that it’s one of the first to establish itself on cleared ground.  In fact I’d seen a JCB digging out the ditch the year before, and the seeds of this biennial must have arrived soon after. Arrived how? On car tyres, shoes, clothing: the botanist Edward Salisbury once grew 300 plants of over twenty species from the debris in his trouser turn-ups (just one of hundreds of fascinating facts in Richard Mabey’s Weeds). This made me think of the evening primrose as a bit of a gypsy: camping on clear ground for a few seasons till the competition gets too tough and then moving on.

Then I realised that many plant species have habits which seem like lifestyles, though they’ve clearly evolved to exploit some ecological niche or other, and the ‘lifestyle’ tag is only an imaginative label, though an attractive one. Richard Mabey writes of weeds in general as turning up

at the same time of the year, every year, like garrulous relatives you wished lived just a little further away.

Apart from the least-favourite-relative species, you could also think of the ‘coloniser’ plant which arrives in ‘empty’ ground and rapidly takes over, such as false rocket (Diplotaxis erucoides) – see my blog post here. Or the ‘settler’ which when it germinates spreads out a great rosette of leaves which buries other small seedlings in its shade and prevents others arriving: borage (Borago officinalis) and mulleins (Verbascum species – see here) are two examples.

Young borage plant spreading its leaves to get some lebensraum

Young borage plant spreading its leaves to get some lebensraum

(By the way, if you’re a fan of borage, the first blog from this house, Olives and Artichokes, has some lovely photos and a recipe here.) There’s the ‘live fast, die young’ crowd: groundsel goes from seed to seedling in 6 weeks and can go through five generations in a single year. Honeysuckle and bindweed are nature’s social climbers, trying to get as high up the ladder as the bigger plants around them.

Honeysuckle - Lonicera etrusca in May 2012

Honeysuckle – Lonicera etrusca in May 2012

Then shrubs and trees which stay put once they get established and just get bigger are the smug marrieds of the plant world. The role of the ‘outsider’ is one which I wrote about here. Please feel free to suggest any more you can think of.

Perhaps there are some points of similarity with human lifestyles: it takes all sorts to make an ecology (or a society), and while some of the variety is due to competition for light and space (or work and money), there’s also a collaborative, neighbourly side. This brings me to the discipline called ‘phytosociology’. I kid you not, this really exists, and the term was coined as long ago as 1896: see here on the tela botanica website (in French). This is the study of natural association of plants, and of the regular stages of development over years of the flora of any particular site: the succession of plants, as it’s called. Some plants need the shade of others, or need bare soil to have first been colonised and stabilised by others, for example.

All these ruminations about plants reacting to each other led me to wonder about the relationship between plants and humans: clearly we affect the plant world through our agriculture and the ever-present weeds that this encourages, as Richard Mabey explains in Weeds. But do plants affect us? Is the relationship mutual, two-way?

You could think of the awe inspired by great trees. You could think of the Roman attitude to the great Northern forests: the Latin word salvaticus (wooded) became the French sauvage (meaning ‘wild’) and the English savage.

fencing paradise

There are a few more answers to this question in another of Mabey’s books, Fencing Paradise. He lives in East Anglia, and clearly has a thing about grain-growing and its effect on people:

The great drawback of exclusively arable systems is that they are two-dimensional. They reduce three-dimensional landscapes to flat drawing-boards, drastically simplifying their ecologies and social meanings.  They are wholly managed systems, allowing little space for natural inventiveness or human ingenuity.  They are single-minded and single-purposed, contrary to the rules by which living systems normally work.  And this reduction, this homogenization, is reflected in the human societies that develop around them.

The simplicity, and consequent mechanisation, of growing grain seems to me almost one-dimensional (fertilise-sow-spray-reap-profit) in comparison to the judgements and skills involved in vinegrowing in my area.  And here the verges sport a much richer flora due to the absence of chemicals. Though grain surplus is what first enabled civilisation, there are alternatives: Mabey describes and advocates mixed farming based on forests, such as the cork oak forests of Spain and Portugal, chestnut forests of France, and the Mediterranean olive culture. He points out that we used to study and ‘listen’ to plants for their medicinal properties.  I suppose Western industrial-chemical agriculture and urban living generally represent humans ‘shouting at’ the plant world, demanding that it give us more. It’s a relationship that’s heading for counselling at best, divorce at worst.  I leave the last word to Fencing Paradise:

Maybe we need to turn our conventional relationship with nature upside-down, begin to learn from it rather than just ‘about’ it, let natural systems take the lead for once. Even the greenest of programmes  are,  normally, human projects modified to reduce their impact on the environment.  What if we were to think the other way round instead, in terms of innovations that take natural forms and processes as their models, rather than their raw materials? . . . Could we evolve a way of biologically generating energy that has the efficiency of photosynthesis?

These reflections were very much in my mind when we drove through France on our way to Wales recently, and I’ll make that the topic of the next post.

Now it’s fifty years since the influential jazz-bossa album Getz/Gilberto was recorded, the first of several wonderful collaborations between the saxophonist Stan Getz and various Brazilian musicians, and to my mind a cross-cultural encounter that’s still fascinating (though I confess I often skip the overplayed ‘Girl from Ipanema’). This album is the only one to have Getz playing not only with Joao Gilberto, but also with Antonio Carlos Jobim and the latter’s favourite percussionist, Milton Banana, and the subtle, understated complexity of the rhythms and harmonies seem about right for a blog post on relationships. That’s on a musical level – in real life the main players weren’t so compatible, not helped by Getz’s affair with Gilberto’s wife, but that’s another story. Here’s ‘So Danço Samba’ (I only dance samba), written by Jobim, who couldn’t dance at all.

Coming up soon: To Wales the long way round.



Filed under Diplotaxis, Lonicera, Oenothera, Verbascum

Malta Wild Plants: signs of growth?

When I started this blog last May, one of the sites I had been inspired by was – I give details in the Resources section.  This site had then been online for ten years, the labour of love of a passionate Maltese botanist who had recorded details of around 1,000 species on the island, illustrated with some 11,000 stunning, high quality photos. For anyone who was interested in plants, it was a veritable treasure trove.

Then in July 2012 Matawildplants went offline. Though the site had over 30,000 visitors a month the man who ran the site had run out of sponsors, time and funds.  I contacted to ask what support bloggers like me could offer, and here is part of his reply I recently received:

Thank you for your email and encouragement. I am trying to save the website and seeking for financial sponsors or advertisement. I have the pleasure to inform you that I already found one and seeking for few others. I am asking sponsors for 500Eur and adverts for 120Eur a year. If you know someone who might be interested, please pass on the word.


So please help if you can, including spreading this message through your own contacts.  You can contact the site at

Coming up soon: Being a plant: it’s a lifestyle choice.



Filed under Uncategorized

Hey, Jasmine, come and meet Robert and Violet

Fied Bindweed - Convolvulus arvensis - busy doing what?

Field Bindweed – Convolvulus arvensis – busy doing what?

Common sense, ‘facts’, things taken for granted, taken as read: the history of science shows that all these can be swept aside like old toys by some confident new research. The idea of unchanging, fixed species?  Darwin saw to that.  Solid matter? Smashed by nuclear physics.  In botany? Well, Darwin and evolutionary theory are still transforming our view of how plants came to be what they are today.  However, considering that much less funding goes to botanical research than other sciences, I wonder if other surprises still await us. Yes, the way a seed germinates and grows is clever, but after that, plants just stand there alone, stupid, blind, waiting to be picked, or eaten, or trodden on, or strimmed – don’t they? Isn’t that how they’re different from animals?

I’d like to hazard a guess at what a new surprise might be: plants have a social life. Since I’ve taken more time to observe plants and read about them in the last year or so, my view of them has changed.  Here are some examples.

Plants communicate. Not in the ‘talk to your geranium’ sense, or the ‘scream when they’re cut’ sense, but more commonly with chemicals. In the book I reviewed in my last post, Weeds, Richard Mabey writes that

The air and the soil are busy with constant streams of chemical messages – plant pheromones – designed to deter predatory insects, seduce pollinators, kill off competitors, encourage companion plants and warn other plants of insect attack.

These pheromones can be volatile compounds evaporating from the leaves or soluble chemicals exuding from the roots into the water in the soil. The roots of field bindweed (Convolvulus arvensis – in photo at top) secrete something which inhibits the germination of most grain crops.  The seeds of the striking thornapple (Datura stramonium ) can release chemicals which inhibit cabbages and tomatoes.

Thornapple - Datura stramonium - the poisonous weed that looks like a garden flower

Thornapple – Datura stramonium – the poisonous weed that looks like a garden flower

The growing tip of the plant dodder, which is parasitic on tomatoes, spirals round till it senses tomato leaf chemicals and then grows straight toward their source.

Plants are interdependent. Gardeners often use the phrase ‘companion plants’ to describe plants which grow well together: my Agenda du jardinier bio (organic gardener’s diary) lists dozens under ‘Voisinage favorable’: plant garlic near tomatoes but away from artichokes, celery near beetroot but away from salads etc. Pheromones may be at work here too.

An even closer association is between plant roots and beneficial fungi – I had heard of truffle oaks of course, but I was surprised to read in a botany textbook that ‘most higher plants have an association with soil fungi’. Yes, ‘most higher plants’: estimates are as high as 95%.  A root which cohabits (‘is infected with’ seems too value-laden a term) with a symbiotic fungus is called a mycorrhiza. The fungal threads can cover a huge area and help the plant source scarce minerals such as phosphates and nitrates, as well as water.  In return the fungus receives carbohydrates from the green plant. This short clip shows how it works:

A plant that combines many of these features is Cistus monspeliensis, which I wrote about on this blog here. As well as helping absorb nutrients, the fungus on its roots secretes a toxin which stops other seeds germinating – and it’s true that each Cistus usually sits in a bare patch of ground.

To give a few more examples, they’re also particularly important in trees of northern temperate areas, such as oaks, birches and conifers; and in heathers – Erica and Arbutus. Many orchids can’t even germinate without a particular fungus, which may account for their appearance in patches, from seeds germinating within the area of ground which contains fungus.  This makes evolutionary sense: plants originated in the seas and first colonised wet areas.  Fungal help would have been invaluable in spread to drier habitats, and once the solution was found, why evolve another?

Here’s forestry specialist Professor Suzanne Simard explaining that a forest is really a community, whose members have different roles:

You can make the most of mycorrhizae in organic gardening by inoculating your seeds and plants with fungal spores: see here:

One point I came across often is that industrial-scale grain growing goes against this process: the grain-bearing species are the least likely to have mycorrhizae; they therefore need higher levels of chemical fertiliser than other crops; and application of fungicides and other processes further reduce the biological activity of the soil.  All in all, we’re getting some insights in how to live with Nature, which, as Richard Mabey has said, is bigger than us.

In the second part of this theme, I’ll look at the lifestyles of plants – and their relationship with humans. Meanwhile, what more appropriate song title for this post than Stevie Wonder’s 1979 ‘Secret life of plants’?



Filed under Cistus, Convolvulus, Datura, Himantoglossum, Orchis

Across nature’s borderlines


I’d like to share with you the best book on plants I’ve bought this year: Weeds, by Richard Mabey, published in 2010 by Profile Books (HarperCollins).  OK, it’s not exactly hot off the press, but it’s so good I had to write about it.

It’s hard to know where to begin with the superlatives: Mabey is one of the best writers in the world on natural history, sharp-eyed and with a gift for adjectives and images that go instantly to head and  heart. His aim is to change our view of nature, and especially to show that those neglected or despised parts of it hold hope for our future. ‘Many of them’, he writes of these plants, ’may be holding the bruised parts of the planet from falling apart.’ He makes us rethink many of our values, especially towards outsiders and outlaws.

Richard Mabey

Richard Mabey

Watch him speaking at a recent writers’ event here.

This book also shows his breadth of cultural reference, with insightful forays into art (for example, Dürer’s Large piece of turf ,  and burdock in the work of Lorrain,

Durer's 'Large piece of turf''

Durer’s ‘Large piece of turf”

Stubbs and others), poetry (especially John Clare), Shakespeare, and fiction , including a long analysis of Rose Macaulay’s oddly unsettling 1950 novel The World my Wilderness. Encouraged by Mabey, I found the novel on CL’s shelf of course, and read it: it’s an intriguing dissection of the state of immediate post-war  Britain and France – it’s set partly in Collioure.  Chiming with Mabey’s view of weeds as the supreme chancers, the ‘spivs of the vegetable world’, Macaulay holds a fine ambivalence towards weeds and wildness, both human and botanical, in the undergrowth of the bombsites of London.  It features more named plant species than any other novel I’ve read.

Mabey views weeds not just as ‘plants out of place’, that is, not wanted in spaces cultivated by humans, nor  even in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s more positive view  as plants ‘whose virtues have not yet been discovered’, but as our ‘familiars’: plants whose history is inescapably linked to our own. They gave us our first vegetables, our first medicines, and our first dyes. If weeds had been eliminated when agriculture began, the dry soils of the Middle East would have simply blown away: goodbye farming and human civilisation. He argues for a ‘rapprochement with weeds…our most successful cultivated crop’.

I started looking for quotes and began to note so many just from the first chapter that I decided to tell you to read it for yourselves: you can get a taste here.

I have a couple of minor caveats: the pencil sketches don’t very well illustrate the text, and I often wished for colour photographs.  These would, of course, have made the book much more expensive. Secondly the flora referred to is mostly British, but the wider issues are just as applicable to the Mediterranean.

Splendid weeds at the edge of a vineyard - photo taken yesterday (31st March)

Splendid weeds at the edge of a vineyard – photo taken yesterday (31st March)

Weeds on our borders: in ten metres along the vineyard above I saw: fumitory, coltsfoot, false rocket, grape hyacinths, irises, mallow, mallow-leafed crane’s bill, mercury, marigolds, henbit deadnettle, chickweed, sun spurge,thistle and groundsel..

And to illustrate the range of Mabey’s  cultural sources, here’s a song he mentions, ‘Polk salad Annie’ – this version the funky original, recorded in Muscle Shoals in 1969 by the man who wrote it, Tony Joe White. Polk, or poke (Phytolacca americana) is an edible weed growing in the southern states of America, and by coincidence I recently came across it in another novel I’d recommend: Barbara Kingsolver’s Pigs in Heaven. In both song and novel, collecting poke confers the stigma of the underclass, and shows how far we’ve come from what’s good for us.  There’s also a video for readers of this blog in the southern USA showing how to find and prepare poke – you HAVE to cook it.

Coming up soon: The social life of plants – they’re not just standing there, you know


Filed under Uncategorized