Category Archives: Anacamptis

Shock and awe on the Sauveplaine

I’ve just had what will probably be my botanical experience of the year.  I know this sentence, which is meant to be puffed up into a superlative, has its own deflating word, and that’s ‘botanical’, rather than, say, ‘spiritual’, but maybe there was some of that, too.

Friends here have told me before that to see spring flowers, I should go to the Sauveplaine  –  the generally but sparsely wooded limestone plateau above the plain and the garrigue, the name coming from the Latin sylva plana, a wooded plain. The last weekend I did just that, together with a group of friends, led by the most experienced local botanist, our retired village nurse.

Some of the botany group on the sauveplaine

Some of the botany group on the sauveplaine amongst the wild garlic and broom

I was struck by awe. So many plants, so many flowers, such beauty in such profusion. It was like stumbling into Eden, or an eco-warrior’s dreamed-of future, yet just a couple of hundred metres along a dirt track from a road we travel several times a week. It’s not marked on the map, and the name isn’t even in the dictionary.  To remind us that we weren’t in another reality, or in paradise, there were electricity pylons.

Lilies, orchids and much else on the sauveplaine

Lilies, orchids and much else on the sauveplaine

But still: pyramidal orchids as common as daisies, drifts of white lilies, and a field turned azure by a haze of viper’s bugloss, which reminded me of a comment about this plant (Echium vulgare) on this blog from Ceridwen.  After a while, a long while, my serious side resumed control of my wondering brain, and I started to list the plants I recognised. Within about a fifty metre radius, by the end of the morning I had a list of 54 species.

A field of viper's bugloss

A field of viper’s bugloss

Why such diversity here? As Xavier, the geologist in our group, explained, it’s partly because near our village one set of rock strata was carried over another, resulting in much folding and breaking, complicated by later volcanic activity – we have at least three extinct volcanic hills. This results in a very varied set of soil types, including acidic schist and alkaline limestone, but all of which are very porous, meaning that the hilltops especially are very dry. Plants which settle on the Sauveplaine thus have to be able to resist long periods of drought, which favours plants with bulbs and tubers, such as lilies or the orchids I wrote about in the last post. Ironically, because the water has drained to underground reserves, the area is described in our village brochure as ‘un veritable chateau d’eau’ – a real water tower – because it supplies the village spring: la source de la Resclause.

The lily: Anthericum liliago

The lily: Anthericum liliago

Other plant adaptations to drought include having taproots (such as bugloss or mountain lettuce), or very long root systems such as most legumes: a lucerne plant just  30cm high can have roots many metres long.  Or seeing out the drought as seeds, which means the whole vegetative life-stage has to be completed in the spring. Or having tiny, wax-covered, or hairy leaves which reduce water loss and enable the plant to be almost dormant during la grande chaleur (thyme and cistus are examples)  Additionally, some of the plants which smother everything else at lower or wetter levels are absent, giving all these dry-adapted flowers a chance. The proper botanical term for this sort of shrubland vegetation is not garrigue or Sauveplaine, but the Spanish word matorral.

Lactuca perennis - mountain or blue lettuce. A wild perennial salad leaf

Lactuca perennis – mountain or blue lettuce. A wild perennial salad leaf

I also noticed a few dry-stone walls up there, presumably for penning animals, meaning the area was used perhaps up to 100 years ago for winter pasture for sheep and goats, of which there used to be many in the village, though there are none now. Grazing would have stopped the succession of the flora to trees and shrubs, and the dry stony ground will take a long time – centuries more – to revert to a covering of holm oak, lentisk, broom and arbutus. Wildfires also turn back the clock of reversion to forest  (there were four large fires up there in 2011), but untouched the area will slowly revert: it’s a place in transition.

A new discovery: I think it's Dorycnium hirsutum.

A new discovery: I think it’s Dorycnium hirsutum.

The special nature of this habitat made me think of a project I’ve had in mind since I read this post on a blog I very much enjoy, The Reremouse, (  written by a nature conservation worker in Walsall in the English Midlands. As you’ll see if you follow the link, she suggests an alternative to aimless  trainspotterish plant collecting, which is to concentrate on a particular delimited patch and record all species found there. In her own list she includes animals and fungi, of which she has good knowledge, but I’m thinking of doing this just for the flora of the Sauveplaine.

I think there are some benefits of this sort of project: it forces me to look at less showy species, such as grasses, or ones which are more difficult to identify (oh, the problems I’ve had with yellow compound flowers!)  It reminds me of the extent of plant diversity in a small area. I can see what arrives and what disappears. It should make me more aware of zones within the habitat such as shade/full sun, and different soil types. I’m getting quite keen on the idea. In fact, I’ve already started another plant patch list for a small area of coastal sand dunes, about which you can expect to hear more.

I wondered about choosing music which was sufficiently awestruck, but I’ve settled for a local band we’ve seen a couple of times and like very much.  Their music – some composed by the band, some traditional – is rooted in this area and in this sort of scenery – their name, Du Bartas, means ‘in the bushes’ in Occitan, and they sing mostly in that language.  This video looks as if it was recorded in a shed up in the hills:

Coming up soon: In the dunes – botanising among the tourists



Filed under Allium, Anacamptis, Anthericum, Dorycnium, Echium

The curious case of the de-potted orchid

The pyramidal orchid - Anacamptis pyramidalis

The pyramidal orchid – Anacamptis pyramidalis

A centenary approaches: on the morning of 8th February 1913 gardeners arrived at work at a large hothouse complex in London to find glass broken in three houses, orchids removed from their pots and the pots broken, and plant labels removed. ‘An attack on plants is as cowardly and cruel as one upon domestic animals or those in captivity’, snorted the Gardeners’ Magazine. Garden staff were helped in their investigations not only by the police, but by the perpetrators themselves: clues were some ‘feminine fingerprints’, a handkerchief, a bag, and an envelope bearing the inscription Votes for women ‘in an uneducated hand’. The Daily Express has always had a taste for a sober and reasoned headline, and on this occasion it read ‘Mad women raid Kew Gardens!’

In case anyone was in any doubt, the Raiders of the Bust Pot returned to Kew twelve days later and burned down the refreshment pavilion, strewing placards for women’s suffrage nearby.

The remains of the refreshment pavilion at Kew after the fire

The remains of the refreshment pavilion at Kew after the fire

This time the raiders were caught. The Morning Post reported the trial on 8th March:

At 3.15 next morning one of the night attendants noticed a bright light inside the pavillion and running towards the building he saw two people running away from it. He blew his whistle and did his best to extinguish the fire, which immediately broke out, but his efforts were unavailing. At this time two constables happened to be in the Kew-road, and after their attention had been attracted to the reflection of the fire in the sky, they saw two women running away from the direction of the pavillion. The constables gave chase, and just before they caught them each of the women who had separated was seen to throw away a portmanteau. At the station the women gave the names of Lilian Lenton – who was too ill to appear before the Magistrate on remand – and Joyce Lock, the accused, who later gave her correct name of Olive Wharry.


Olive Wharry

Olive Wharry

 According to the Roger Fulford in his history Votes for Women:

A girl [sic – she was then 27], Olive Wharry, was arrested and brought before the local magistrates’ court. She threw a directory at the head of the chairman, Councillor Bisgood. Although she aimed from a distance of six feet, she fortunately missed her target.

Olive Wharry  was sentenced to eighteen months in prison.  The plan of her companion, Lilian Lenton. had been to burn two buildings a week in order to make Britain ungovernable – and a few depotted orchids can only have hastened that goal.

Lilian Lenton

Lilian Lenton

We do miss the daring and novel tactics of the suffrage movement – where is this energy these days?  Other acts in early 1913 listed by Roger Fulford include the action of a Miss Melford:

the daughter of a leading actor, perched…on the top deck of a motor-bus…from this vantage point she drove along Victoria Street, firing stones from a powerful catapult into the windows of the buildings passed by the bus.  The professionals at many of the golf courses around Birmingham were startled to find that some of their putting-greens had, during the night of January 30th been burned by acid with the slogan ‘Votes for Women’..

And what were the results of this bold and imaginative campaign?  Ray Desmond’s Kew: a history of the Royal Botanic Gardens goes straight to the core issue, but is phlegmatic : ‘The destruction of the Pavilion was no great loss. It had been crudely fabricated ….’

Were Kew – and golf courses for that matter – plucked out of the air as targets? Or chosen solely for maximum public impact?  Not only for those reasons  – Kew also had ‘form’ as far as women were concerned. Here, from Desmond’s history of  Kew, are the views of Sir Joseph Hooker, the former Director of Kew, as reported in a letter in 1902:

At one time some women (not ladies in any sense of the word) gardeners were employed at Kew but there are none now.  Sir Joseph says he could not possibly recommend any lady to go there. She would have to work with the labouring men, doing all they have to do, digging, manuring, and all the other disagreeable parts of gardening.  Then there is the work in the hothouses; the men, I believe, work simply in their trousers, and how could a lady work with them.

Two women gardeners at Kew, 1898

Two women gardeners at Kew, 1898 (the ones without moustaches)

As I’ve mentioned in another post (here), the cultivation of orchids was also a particularly male obsession, and one to which well-off gentlemen devoted much more time and resources  than to getting a women’s suffrage bill passed by Parliament.  If you want to get a man’s attention (if not his goodwill), kick him in the orchids –  that’ll teach him to garden in his trousers.

Today’s plant is of course an orchid: Anacamptis pyramidalis. It’s maybe the most common orchid round my way, so it wouldn’t have excited much attention from the gentlemen orchid collectors. I see it often in grassy roadside verges, sometimes in quite large groups.

‘We now come to Orchis pyramidalis, one of the most highly organised species which I have examined’ wrote Charles Darwin in his On the various contrivances by which British and foreign orchids are fe rtilised by insects (1862, available at Darwin online here).  He noticed that the flowers were so  successful at attaching their pollen sacs to the proboscis of visiting moths that some of these were so encumbered they must have found it hard to feed.

Head and proboscis of Acontia luctuosa with seven pair of the pollinia of Orchis pyramidalis attached to the proboscis

Head and proboscis of Acontia luctuosa with seven pair of the pollinia of Orchis pyramidalis attached to the proboscis

Let’s update the daring woman theme. Betty Carter was one of the most independent of all jazz singers – she not only created her own style and led her own trios, but founded her own record company, BetCar.  I’ve always liked this song, from the album of the same name: ‘Droppin’ things’.  It brings back the images of the broken pots, and just when you think she’s playing the dizzy woman lost in love, she sings the lines: ‘now the table’s turned, he knows not to fool around…’



Filed under Anacamptis