Category Archives: Diplotaxis

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

In the vines, part one: Diplotaxis erucoides (false rocket)

One of the first people we spoke to in our village was the wife of a beekeeper. We knocked at their door because we needed him to come and remove two nests of bees which had settled between our windows and the shutters while we had been away. The beekeeper wasn’t at home. His wife said ‘He’s in the vines.  Or he’s run off with another woman. But after forty years of marriage, I doubt it.’ We had never met her before – or him for that matter.  It was our introduction to a Midi way of talking – making a joke, usually with a scandalous or sexual reference, out of anything at all. For someone like me who spent more years than was really healthy growing up in Tunbridge Wells, where I can’t remember sex ever being mentioned, this habit takes some getting used to.

But for this blog entry, the point is in the first half of the statement: often, if a man is not at home, he must be ‘in the vines’. Vines demand more work than you might imagine: turning the earth between rows to remove weeds which consume precious water, ‘green pruning’ to remove leaves and to let the sun get to the ripening grapes, the vendange, and at the moment the arduous work of pruning last year’s growth which has to be done by hand and will take most viticulteurs till March to complete. Do the math: at about 5000 vines per hectare, if you have a medium vignoble of 10 hectares that’s 50,000 plants which have to be individually and carefully pruned. That’s 500 vines per day.

False rocket between rows of vines, the village of Fouzilhon in the background

So what’s happening ‘in the vines’ apart from pruning, and a bit of partridge- and rabbit-shooting? Well, this plant is growing, for one thing – Diplotaxis erucoides (false rocket – Eruca  is the name of the ‘real’ rocket genus).

It’s an aggressive coloniser of bare ground, so after the ground has been turned (labourée in French) and after the vendange  traffic has stopped, the seeds brought by the wind or remaining in the ground germinate and grow incredibly fast and very thickly, pre-emptively stopping any other plant from gaining a foothold. In fact I always thought the name ‘rocket’ referred to the speed with which all varieties grow: in fact it comes from the Latin via Italian ruca, diminutive ruchetta, and hence  French roquette. 

A field where vines have been taken up, being colonised by false rocket

The plants are often left between the vines at this time of year, serving as a kind of green manure when they are later ploughed in. The leaves can be used in salad, and have a strong rocket flavour, though I prefer the smaller leaves of another, related plant, which tends to grow alongside the vineyards rather than between the rows: Diplotaxis tenuifolia (wild rocket) whose yellow flowers are nodding away in most verges at the moment.

Diplotaxis tenuifolia – wild rocket

Wild rocket flower

So continuing themes of innuendo and speed, how could I resist playing you Rocket 88, the smash hit recorded in 1951 by Ike Turner and his band (before Tina joined, and under the name of Jackie Brenston, the lead singer. Ike plays piano on this).  It was a number one R&B hit in America, and many have called it the first rock ’n’ roll record – I don’t know about that, but it was five years before Little Richard recorded his first hit, Tutti Frutti, and before  Elvis had his first number one, Heartbreak Hotel.  I was born over a year post-Rocket, and it must be around 1956 that I remember my Dad playing a rough-and-tumble game which involved ‘rocking and rolling’ us children, the first time I heard the phrase. It’s difficult to use the words ‘roll’ and ‘tumble’ these days in an innocent context, but I assure you it was.

The song is ostensibly about a car, an Oldsmobile model  – so a false, not a real rocket. I notice that Wikipedia coyly says it was an early example of a song in which ‘an automobile serves as a metaphor for romantic prowess’.  Hmm – Robert Johnson recorded Terraplane Blues in 1936, and I’m sure someone will tell me of an earlier one. Boys and their cars, eh?

Coming up soon: In the vines, part two, of course, with perhaps my all-time favourite music video.  And after that, it’s off to the seaside, including some souvenirs of a recent trip to Catalonia.


Filed under Diplotaxis