You wouldn’t want your son to go out with this Violet. Dresses in black or sickly purple. Spends all the time in the dark, underground or in shady places. Smells of mould. Reputed to be a parasite. Usually has sex with itself.
But first, there’s no danger my son, or anyone else’s, will go out with a plant. And second, Limodorum abortivum is a simply stunning orchid.
I wrote a couple of posts ago (here) that most orchids have developed close relationships with fungi, and have special zones on their roots called mycorrhizae to exchange water and minerals for carbohydrates. Limodorum abortivum has taken this already rather sci-fi relationship to a futuristic extreme.
It has a network of underground shoots (rhizomes) as well as roots, which are in association with a fungal network (family Russulaceae), and also with the roots of trees such as oak, beech or chestnut. Thanks to the fungus, it can live on decaying organic matter such as leaf humus, and may also be partly parasitic on the tree roots. Seedlings develop very slowly, spending up to ten years underground, and the plant can even flower, pollinate itself, fruit, seed and germinate, all below the surface. It has dispensed with the need for chlorophyll or photosynthetic pigments and indeed with leaves and photosynthesis – the name abortivum comes from the stunted ‘leaves’ which clasp the shoot.
What shoot? Ah – every few years, more often in damp years, less often in dry ones – it sends up a tall purplish flowering shoot and produces stunning flowers. The only advantages of doing this may be occasional insect pollination and thus cross-fertilisation (without which variation and continued evolution would be difficult) and the physical dipsersal of seeds. So it may be the damp spring here this year which has brought forth this magnificent specimen. It’s native to Central Europe, and in France is pretty much confined to the south and west.
Impressive, beautiful in a rather strange way, this is a plant which could haunt your dreams – discovering it certainly made me feel a bit discomfited. It doesn’t do what you expect plants to do: come up into the sunshine, wave about greenly and then produce pretty flowers.
It’s more like a cicada, which for most of its life cycle – between two and seventeen years, depending on the species – exists underground as a nymph, living on tree root sap. They’re just about due to emerge here too.
If you thought the title meant you were going to get the Stones, you were mistaken. I preferred this:
Coming up next: More orchids (I know, I’m spoiling you)