Category Archives: Himantoglossum

A Cowardly New World

2016 - the hottest year ever recorded

2016 – the hottest year ever recorded


No, not Brave. The Inauguration tomorrow of Donald Trump is not only a political event but a sign of a shift in power towards the forces which exploit our environment, damage our climate, and wreak havoc on the natural world which I try to celebrate in this blog. Cowardly, yes, because almost everywhere politicians are coming forward who kowtow to the rich lobbyists, to the profit-hungry multinationals and to the tiny percentage of people who hold most of the world’s wealth. See the extract from George Monbiot’s article below.

It’s not easy being green these days. To defend a few flowers you have to take on leaders of major powers (even if elected by a minority), colossal companies, and media which are best uncritical, at worst blinded by misinformation.

An orchid and some asphodels brave the climate

An orchid and some asphodels brave the climate


We have to take heart where we can. So here’s a picture of a corner of the area called Sauveplaine near where I live. It was desiccated by months of drought this year. Then blasted by a pitiless wild fire which killed all the animals and cost the life of a firefighter. Today the night-time temperature was around -6°C, and near zero when I took the photo. But despite these conditions here come the orchid Himantoglossum robertianum and the asphodel Asphodelus aestivus, arriving for their rendezvous with the Spring as they do every year.

Plants are good at surviving natural catastophes – they carried on almost unchanged during the great evolutionary extinction events such as that which wiped out the dinosaurs. Maybe now is a period when we should try to learn from them.

Forgive me the indulgence with which I reproduce something I wrote a little while ago, inspired by a tree I saw – or perhaps met might be a better word. Bon courage to all of you in this new landscape.

Resist

The weather is bad almost everywhere
threatening us all, along with everything we love.
I head out into it, steeling myself
and encounter this young ash tree
growing in a rock-filled roadside gully.
Its straight trunk slipping between stones
has resisted winter torrents, letting them flow around it,
its grey skin has known frost and scorching sun;
this tree is staking its place, occupying its ground,
its roots push a few more inches of foothold each year,
it’s staying there, growing tall,
just doing its ash-y thing.

And if some idiot
representing a minority
high on power and hardware
went so far as to cut it down
– or burn it, he doesn’t care –
what then?

The ash has thought of that.
After all, its family has been around
for over a hundred million years.
It has made thousands of seeds
spread them around, seen them germinate.
The ash family will have the last laugh.

To endure this bad weather :
grow a thick skin
let events flow around you
be rooted
take your space
pass on your wisdom
and above all,
stay true to yourself.

Quote from a George Monbiot article, the Guardian, 19/01/2017 – full text here.

By appointing Rex Tillerson, chief executive of the oil company ExxonMobil, as secretary of state, Trump not only assures the fossil economy that it sits next to his heart, he also provides comfort to another supporter: Vladimir Putin. It was Tillerson who brokered the $500bn (£407bn) deal between Exxon and the state-owned Russian company Rosneft to exploit oil reserves in the Arctic. As a result he was presented with the Russian Order of Friendship by Putin.
The deal was stopped under the sanctions the US imposed after Russia invaded Ukraine. The probability of these sanctions in their current form surviving a Trump government is, to the nearest decimal place, a snowball’s chance in hell. If Russia did interfere in the US election, it will be handsomely rewarded when the deal goes ahead.
Trump’s nominations for energy secretary and interior secretary are both climate change deniers, who – quite coincidentally – have a long history of sponsorship by the fossil fuel industry. His proposed attorney general, Senator Jeff Sessions, allegedly failed to disclose in his declaration of interests that he leases land to an oil company.
The man nominated to run the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Scott Pruitt, has spent much of his working life campaigning against … the Environmental Protection Agency. As the attorney general in Oklahoma, he launched 14 lawsuits against the EPA, seeking, among other aims, to strike down its Clean Power Plan, its limits on the mercury and other heavy metals released by coal plants and its protection of drinking water supplies and wildlife. Thirteen of these suits were said to include as co-parties companies that had contributed to his campaign funds or to political campaign committees affiliated to him.
Trump’s appointments reflect what I call the Pollution Paradox. The more polluting a company is, the more money it must spend on politics to ensure it is not regulated out of existence. Campaign finance therefore comes to be dominated by dirty companies, ensuring that they wield the greatest influence, crowding out their cleaner rivals. Trump’s cabinet is stuffed with people who owe their political careers to filth.

Here’s a song about a butterfly, cherry blossom, and hope.

12 Comments

Filed under Asphodelus, Himantoglossum

Keep it in the ground

The Giant Orchid
Here I am back on the blog and hoping to continue posting regularly. I never stopped photographing plants, and there’s a huge list of plants and subjects I’d like to include.This is just to start off, and the title sums up what I feel about this orchid, the first Giant orchid (Orchis géant in French, or Himantoglossum robertianum in botany speak) I’ve seen this year, photographed on the 7th March. It’s such a thrill when the orchids start emerging in spring, and this is one of the earliest. I have written before about this species, which has more names than a serial con-man, here.
So why put it in the spotlight again? Because I want it always to appear as it does in spring, I want it to remain forever in the ground, and the biggest risk to it and many other plants, and in fact to Homo sapiens too, is climate change. If the world’s temperature rises over 2 degrees, the ranges, the habitats, the likelihood of survival of many species will be threatened. I realise that our greatest concern as selfish humans is perhaps not a pretty plant but our food sources, and the spread of diseases such as malaria. But this a botany blog, and this is my excuse to bring to your attention a campaign I signed up to a few days ago – the Keep it in the ground initiative. This makes clear that we have a limited time to urge our governments to action. I expect to return to this theme in posts to come.

Here’s some relief from the serious tone: a remix of Ella singing ‘Too Darn Hot’.

7 Comments

Filed under Himantoglossum, 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’?

 

11 Comments

Filed under Cistus, Convolvulus, Datura, Himantoglossum, Orchis

Don’t mistake a Giant for a Lady

I thought something was wrong. In my last post I mentioned a sighting of Lady orchids recently- with a picture – and I did say it didn’t quite match with other pictures of Orchis purpurea (Lady Orchid). That’s because it was no Lady, it was a Giant orchid (Himantoglossum robertianum). Since the subject of the post was not seeing things, overlooking  a giant seems quite appropriate.

No Lady, but Himantoglossum robertianum - really

No Lady, but Himantoglossum robertianum – really

There are some mitigating circumstances I’ll claim in my defence. The giant orchid has gone through a more bewildering variety of names than a wanted criminal.  It was first described by a French botanist with a fine name himself: Jean-Louis-Auguste Loiseleur-Deslongchamps (1774-1849). He was a doctor interested in the medical uses of plants, and named the orchid Orchis robertiana for his friend, G-N Robert (1776-1857), a botanist from Toulon. In French it can be listed as orchis géant, orchis à longues bractées, or Barlie, after Jean-Baptiste Barla (1817-96), a naturalist from Nice particularly interested in orchids . 

In 1967 it became known as Barlia robertiana – but though it is listed like this in many older Flora, including my favourite Wild Flowers of the MediterraneanBarlia does not exist any more as a valid genus name. In 1999 Pierre Delforge put the giant orchid into the Himantoglossum genus – this was resisted by most taxonomists till the name was accepted finally in 2009. If you’re confused by now you’ll be glad to know that I’ve no idea where the name of this genus came from. If you ever want to check what name is currently accepted, the authoritative list is on http://www.theplantlist.org/.

I’ve also seen it listed as  H. longibracteatum, due to the long narrow bracts, longer than the flowers and pointing upwards, which are a distinguishing feature for this species,but this isn’t the accepted name now.

Close-up showing how the long bracts poke out of the inflorescence

Close-up showing how the long bracts poke out of the inflorescence

Secondly it does vary quite a bit in appearance: though the flowers are usually a deep pink with a white central area on the long lip, and purple stripes on the sepals, there are varieties which are white and green.

distribution of sightings of H. robertianum - map from tela botanica

distribution of sightings of H. robertianum – map from tela botanica

Thirdly, it is rare in France. It’s common in my area of the Hérault, but rare elsewhere and so several guides suggest it is protected. It is on the Red List of orchids in France which are threatened (along with 168 others) – but it’s judged to be at small risk of disappearance. Thanks to its underground tubers it can lie low if overgrown by taller garrigue plants or bushes, and can reappear when land is cleared of brush, or when overgrown verges are mown. It’s one of the earliest orchids to flower –from February to April.

Group of giant orchids by a mown roadside verge

Group of giant orchids by a mown roadside verge

Of course I’ll  try in future – as I always do –  to name flowers correctly – but it’s interesting chasing an identification, and I’ve learnt something about French botanists. I’ll go back and change the last post – I always do this if I discover a mistake.

All photos in this post were new ones taken by me this week, on 26th March.

Coming up next: the plant book everyone should read.

 

 

3 Comments

Filed under Himantoglossum, Orchis