Category Archives: Linaria

El Jardí Botànic: the Botanic Garden of the University of Valencia

I’ve been on my holidays, which is why I haven’t posted for a while. We didn’t spend all our time at the Valencia Botanic Garden, though I feel I could easily have done so – with, of course, evening sorties for tapas, which were wonderful in the city. So here are a few recollections of a very enjoyable morning in a place I quickly came to like very much.


Plan of  Jardi Botanic, Valencia

It’s a very small garden – just a city block – only a little way outside the old city walls and an easy walk from the centre, and this adds to its charm.  It calls itself  ‘The oasis in the city’ and it is exactly that, a place dedicated to nature, growth and greenery in a packed and bustling urban environment –  you look up from a bed of cacti and over some palm trees


Cacti, the ‘firework’ palm, and flats

you see the blocks of flats which encircle the garden.  It’s also very accessible for the valencianos: admission only 2€, and retired people can get a year’s pass for 16€, which may explain why it seemed very popular with grandparents and youngsters. To encourage a wide range of visitors it hosts some unexpected events – I loved the idea of the series of concerts there this year with different jazz groups each paired with a sustainable energy theme (2012 is the UN Year of Sustainable Energy For All: more here if like me you’ve missed it).  On 20th October it will be ‘biomass’, and musicians Miquel Casany and Arturo Serra – no video but you can sample the music here). More about this and all else at the Garden on their interesting website here (mostly in English).

Anyway, on to the plants. The main entrance is through the research building, opened in 2000, which must have been built around the huge hackberry tree, over 70 years old, which dominates the central round courtyard.  The hackberry was traditionally used in the Valencian area to make rural tools, so one is immediately reminded of a sustainable resource in a vanishing way of life.

In the garden wide gravel walks separate formal beds which are each devoted to a botanical theme and well labelled. The highlights for me were the buildings in the centre of the garden: the four small greenhouses each on a single subject, the tropical greenhouse, and the shade house.  One small greenhouse was devoted to carnivorous plants,


among them pitcher plants and Darwin’s favourite, Drosera (sundew) – ‘ I care more just now for Drosera than the origin of any species in the world’ he says in Ruth Padel’s poem The extra eye.* Other subjects are ferns, orchids and bromeliads.


Below: Drosera capensis (S. Africa)



Above: Nepenthes hookeriam  (after Darwin’s great friend Joseph Hooker)




The tropical greenhouse was built originally in 1861 and was the first of its kind in Spain. Basque industrialists created the great iron framework and Galician


Entrance to the tropical greenhouse framing CL

 craftsmen installed the 465 square metres of glass.  It may have seemed huge then, but now I had the feeling I get when I’m poking around in a second-hand shop: the pleasure of discovering things I hadn’t seen before, such as a coffee plant, during a gentle shuffle along and back.


Coffea arabica in the greenhouse

The architecturally impressive shade house contains plants that are used to a forest canopy rather than the strong blast of Valencia’s summer sun.


The shade house facade

In the rest of the garden I was thrilled to see a huge Ginkgo biloba, maybe the world’s oldest broadleaf tree species, a great variety of Euphorbias (a genus in a family that’s beginning to fascinate me), and in a lovely rock garden devoted to endemic plants a wide range of toadflaxes and antirrhinums. I was reminded of the Botanic Garden of Wales, which has a walled garden (dedicated to Alfred Russell Wallace)  whose planted beds, shaped in a pattern like the DNA double helix, show variation within species and genera.






Linaria repens                                                                                                                 L. cavanillesii -a very local species




On a small table on the way out is a selection of plants in pots for the gardener who has almost everything: you can buy a tiny baobab tree, or some sugar cane.  Writing about our visit now, I’m still thinking, ‘lucky Valencians’.

* Ruth Padel, Darwin – A Life in Poems,  Vintage, 2010

I couldn’t find a video of  Miquel Casany and  Arturo Serra, but to give you a glimpse of what we might be missing on 20th October, here’s Serra on vibes playing in Nerja, in Andalucia, last year – be patient with some wonky camerawork at the start for a lovely solo, very much in the reflective mood of the Botanic Garden .




Filed under Linaria, Valencia

The Toadflax Saga – episode two

In tonight’s episode: a long-lost cousin turns up, Lin gets called a monster by a Swede, Charles reverts to type, and alternative views of life battle for the Gould medal.

(If that’s all too much, skip to the end for a film on the dangers of wearing a large cardboard saxophone in public)


Before diving into the tangled story of Linaria again, here’s the cousin: a similar plant which has also been reclassified by botanists. It’s Misopates orontium, known in English not very flatteringly as Weasel’s Snout, also as Lesser Snapdragon – which is not a surprise because it used to be in the Antirrhinum (snapdragon) genus. These family and name changes remind me of soap-opera storylines: I can imagine the reclassified species crying:  ‘But I just don’t know who I am anymore!’

 Linaria and the snapdragons have had cameo roles to play in the long-running story of evolution (Beast-enders? Sorry). It all started with the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus  (1707-78, above), Professor of Medicine at Uppsala University, and perhaps  the most important biologist  of the 18th century.  In a colossal labour he brought together all that was known about plants in the whole world till that point, and if that wasn’t enough he included all animals as well in his great monument, the binomial system of names for all living things (i.e. genus  and species ).

In 1742 a botanical student named Liöberg  found, growing on an island near Stockholm, a plant whose flowers resembled those of Linaria vulgaris but which instead of being symmetrical either side of a vertical plane (known as zygomorphic), were radially symmetrical (or actinomorphic), having five equal petals and five spurs.  Here is a photo of a modern version, from a blog which tells this story too – well  worth a look here.


Eventually this conundrum came the way of Linnaeus, who was most discomfited by the discovery, since he believed strongly that all species were created separately by God and hence could not change.  He assumed it must be a hybrid with an unknown plant and in 1744 called the plant Peloria – the Greek for ‘monster’. The example was discussed by Charles Darwin over a century later, when he had  studied the snapdragon (Antirrhinum majus) in detail : the members of this similar genus also hybridise easily and show occasional radial symmetry. Darwin showed that peloric flowers were not hybrids but bred true, and published his findings in 1868 in The variation of plants and animals under domestication .  He regarded it as a possible reversion to a previous evolutionary stage, describing it as:

… an actual, though partial, return to the structure of the ancient progenitor of the group. If this view be correct, we must believe that a vast number of characters, capable of evolution, lie hidden in every organic being. But it would be a mistake to suppose that the number is equally great in all beings. We know, for instance, that plants of many orders occasionally become peloric; but many more cases have been observed in the Labiatæ and Scrophulariaceæ than in any other order; and in one genus of the Scrophulariaceæ, namely Linaria, no less than thirteen species have been described in a peloric condition.  On this view of the nature of peloric flowers, and bearing in mind what has been said with respect to certain monstrosities in the animal kingdom, we must conclude that the progenitors of most plants and animals, though widely different in structure, have left an impression capable of redevelopment on the germs of their descendants.

(The variation of plants and animals under domestication [1868] , Ch. 13, available here)

Later still, when the science of genetics had developed, it was assumed that the ‘monster’ of radial symmetry or ‘pelorism’ was due to the mutation of a gene.  Recently it has been shown that in fact vertically symmetrical (zygomorphic) and peloric flowers have the same genes, and the difference is in how they are controlled by ‘an extensive, heritable methylation of the gene’( more detail here).

This is the sort of half-chance that can be seized on by anyone with an anti-Darwin axe to grind.  For example, by Googling Linaria and evolution I came across a website apparently about Darwin, and on it a blog post for April 3rd 2011 (here),  in which the author recounts the Peloria story but concludes that since the genes are the same in peloric and non-peloric plants there is no mutation and hence ‘the foundational evidence for evolution is a legacy of facade and outright fraud.’ Despite the author’s  having a biological degree, this seems to be because he has confused the fact that one gene is identical in the two plants, with the idea that the whole DNA of the two forms is identical – well, that combined with misunderstanding of how science develops and some wilful bias. He concludes that: ‘The Linaria story highlights why evolution, while once a theory in crisis during the twentieth century, is now in crisis without a theory’.

Though in the story he tells he makes it clear he is nostalgic for the days of Linnaeus’s religious beliefs, the name of the site, the nature of the posts, and his account of himself appear scientific and do not mention a religious view. In his section about himself the author writes that his site:

….  presents the history of evolution with a time-line of discoveries, people, and ideas. With over a century of unprecedented biological research since the publication of The Origin of Species, now is the time to reflect on the scientific evidence of evolution. This blog is a forum for focusing on one of today’s hottest and contentious topics – evolution.

I can imagine a school student looking for essay material helping  themselves to a lot of this – I was a psychology lecturer and I know all about cut-and-paste essays.  The concealment of  the real purpose of  blogs like this seems to me to be both deliberate and  dishonest:  hoping to attract students and steer them towards unfounded opinions and wilful misinterpretations which masquerade as scientific evidence written by a scientist.

This author is not the only one – his ‘Reference Library’ gives a list of people who have published religious tracts dressed up as respectable science – I have come across some  before, for example a man who has put biology videos on Youtube which don’t mention his real agenda.

All this subterfuge is not accidental.  A couple of posts ago I mentioned Stephen Jay Gould and his unwavering campaign, together  with the American Civil Liberties Union, against the teaching of creationism in schools. Promoters of the literal truth of Genesis used to have American law on their side:  all teaching of evolution in schools was banned till as recently as 1968, when the proscription was overturned.  However, even then, as Gould notes in this article,  biology textbook publishers continued to cater for the religious market by not mentioning evolution in books aimed at schools – so that he himself, one of the theory’s most eloquent exponents, could not study it until he went to college.  From that point the only channel left open to creationists was to present their ideas as ‘science’ and to demand time on the science curriculum – a strategy tried in Arkansas and defeated in court in 1981 with the aid of Gould on the witness stand.  The battle is far from over and clearly this strategy of deception is still the path of a many producers of professional-looking internet resources.

I leave the last words to Gould:

The argument that the literal story of Genesis can qualify as science collapses on three major grounds: the creationists’ need to invoke miracles in order to compress the events of the earth’s history into the biblical span of a few thousand years; their unwillingness to abandon claims clearly disproved, including the assertion that all fossils are products of Noah’s flood; and their reliance upon distortion, misquote, half-quote, and citation out of context to characterize the ideas of their opponents. [Stephen Jay Gould, “The Verdict on Creationism”, The Skeptical Inquirer, Winter 87/88, pg. 186]

Now, that saxophone: I was overjoyed to find that the cleverly named Polish band Pink Freud have released a video which just seems made for this blog post:

Coming up next: a lovely flower, a short write-up, and a perfect song.



Filed under Linaria, Misopates

It’s a family affair: Linaria arvensis? (toadflax)


Leaving the question mark to one side for the moment, let’s deal with the names. The toad is an animal I left till the end of the last post, and it’s another derogatory name-calling thing – it’s a good job plants can’t argue back or we’d be deafened on any country walk.  Grigson says ‘toadflax’ (as a name for Linaria vulgaris) came from William Turner’s  1548 translation of the German Krottenflachs – a ‘wild, useless flax, a flax for toads’. Linaria means ‘like the linen or flax plant’, and arvensis just means ‘of the fields’.

Linaria in a corner of the garden

It is a small (a few millimetres long) and relatively insignificant flower – one French website says it passes almost unnoticed due to the slenderness of its stem and the paleness of its flowers – but my efforts to identify it made me learn about many different things: recent DNA research, the trustworthiness of both books and the internet, the way evolution is ongoing, a puzzle for the great Swedish botanist Linnaeus, and the hidden presence of anti-Darwin creationists. So the length of this post is out of all proportion to that of the flowers. So much so, in fact, that I’ve decided to split it into two parts, with the next one in a couple of days.

I’ve had problems with the identification of this plant – and I’m far from the only one.  When I saw the leaves in spring I thought it was a spurge (Euphorbia, probably cyparissias) because of the pinkish stems and whorls of slender greyish leaves.  Then the flowers appeared a few weeks ago and they were clearly snapdragon-like, apparently one of the Scrophulariaceae (figwort) family. The flowers most resemble toadflax – the Linaria genus – but I couldn’t pin it down to any one species,  and then I found that Linaria has been reallocated lock stock and barrel to another family, Plantaginaceae, the plantains, which it doesn’t resemble at all.  What’s going on?


Whole Linaria plant measured on the kitchen table – leaves more like spurge than toadflax

This is a result of new DNA research updating the old classification which had been based on morphology, or appearance.  Studies which analysed DNA sequences of these plants about ten years ago showed that the Scrophulariaceae family was in fact composed of five distinct lineages (monophyletic groups is the technical term), and the largest number have been told to go and join the plantains.  ‘Ah’ said Chaiselongue insightfully, ‘they were adopted, and they’ve been told to go back to their natural parents’. That’s more or less it, and the genera leaving their adopted home and arriving chez  Plantain  include Antirrhinum (snapdragons proper), Anarrhinum (similar), Linaria (toadflaxes), Cymbalaria (ivy-leafed toadflaxes), Digitalis (foxgloves) and Veronica (speedwells).

This is a cautionary tale for amateur botanists – like me – because the flower guides are not properly updated. My main references (Wild Flowers of the Mediterranean by Blamey and Grey-Wilson [2008], and La nature méditerranéenne by Martin [2011]) were published after this revision of families but don’t show it.  Neither does the tela botanica website. How should you check? The best source to go to is the one used by professionals: the Plant List – – which is a project jointly led by Kew Gardens and the Missouri Botanic Gardens to produce ‘a working list of all plant species’. All details for these sources are in the ‘Resources’ section of this blog – see the tab at the top.

Linaria flower measured, showing spur (scale in cm/mm)

The need for caution doesn’t stop there. The flower colour of my plant is like L. repens, but the small size of the flowers is more like L. arvensis or micrantha; the spur, a characteristic backward projection from the lower petals, is short and straight like L. simplex, but those flowers are yellow. Checking names and photos between books and websites such as the above and also the useful, I found that several sites which use photos uploaded by the public have many errors – well, there were huge differences between the pictures, sometimes on the same site, and they can’t all be right. These sites are evidently not edited or supervised, and any information is only as good as the last uploading amateur.  In another example of disagreement, the Wikipedia  entry says there are 100 species of Linaria, but the Plant List gives only 29 accepted species, among no less than  642 commonly used species names, most awaiting scrutiny. Linaria is a confusing genus.

There are reasons for this, and as I used to tell my students (I was a psychology lecturer) confusion is an advance, a stage in learning: first you think you know, then you get confused, then you know better, or at least see the limits of your knowledge.  Digging around on Google I found several research papers on Linaria which pointed out how easily different species hybridise, or cross, with each other – aided in part by the fact that the plants are not self-fertile, they have to cross with another individual (a feature noted in plants by Darwin as favouring  variety and hence evolution).  In 1948 the botanist Dilleman went as far as to call the whole genus ‘promiscuous’, after noting in the Paris Botanical Gardens that L. purpurea hybridised with members of any neighbouring Linaria species.  ‘How does this happen’, you may ask, ‘I thought species couldn’t interbreed, isn’t that the whole definition of a species?’

Well yes, it is part of the definition: that’s what happens eventually as species diverge. This crossing between species is a sign that Linaria is in the middle of the evolutionary process of diverging: one set of researchers comment: ‘despite marked morphological differentiation, species divergence within Linaria is relatively recent and reproductive isolation has not yet fully evolved’ ( Ward et al., 2009, here). The species we see now diverged from their parent stock probably in the last few million years, which is recent by evolutionary standards.

Where does all this leave us with my rather insignificant weed? Well, I believe it may be a cross, or it may be a species for which I have not as yet found an illustration. Anyone with any suggestions is very welcome to leave me a comment.  But I am comforted by the confusion of others with this genus, for example that of Linnaeus in an important story about evolution which I’m going to tell in the next instalment. I’ll also be looking into the hidden agendas of some biology websites.

Following the genetic theme I’m looking for family-related music. First off, here’s the newish voice on the jazz scene, Gregory Porter, and his song Real good hands, with love to two of my readers. I recommend listening to any of his stuff you can find – he has one of the best male voices to appear on the scene in a long time, and he writes terrific songs.

Coming up very soon: a mutation discovered in Sweden and an aberration on the internet.



Filed under Linaria