Two words you might have used, once upon a time, to catch someone’s attention, to show surprise, to have fun. All of which seem appropriate for a new discovery for me on the sauveplaine, the plateau near my village which is so rich in plant life. Yes, it’s another orchid: the Man Orchid (Orchis anthropophora – it also used to be named Aceras anthropophorum), which was growing in a little colony up there.
Man orchid – Orchis anthropophora
Only about 25 cm tall, with sepals and petals seeming to form a hood or helmet, and the lip resembling a tiny man.
Man orchid – close-up
I’ve been keeping a list of the species I’ve found on the sauveplaine, and now I’m up to 92 – when I have a mo, I’ll put the list on the ‘Patch Lists’ page of the blog. I find that keeping a list is a great way to remember names, to appreciate the differences in habitat, and to develop the habit of looking closely at all species, not just the showy ones.
And musos may already have guessed: here’s Bo Diddley from 1959 with the eponymous song.
I’ve begun to ask myself why I announced I’d do a post about a few orchids I’d seen recently. Why should that be special? Would I do the same for a few thistles?
I suppose what might make orchids appealing could be their rarity value – though some are locally common. Or it could be their colour – many are vividly pigmented, as are many other plants which also have bulbs or tubers: dahlias, irises, tulips and so on. I think there’s a clue there, in the underground storage reserves which bulbs or tubers represent.
Usually, spring here is short: March and April are the months when it’s warming but not baking, and it’s the season with the most rain. If you’re a plant, you’ve got eight weeks to get your flower out, get pollinated and set your seed. Plants which have a bulb, corm, rhizome, tuber etc (called geophytes because a significant part of their yearly cycle is spent in the earth) have an edge here over seeds which have to germinate and then generate energy from photosynthesis. A bulb or tuber can get a big showy flower out and attracting insects before your average weeds have woken up. It’s a bit like a desperate annual village dance: the singles have a very short time to attach, match and hatch, and those with a stored sexy wardrobe are out in front (double entendre intended).
Then the bulbs and tubers have another function: to enable such plants to survive a harsh season, and here in the Midi that usually means the long hot dry summer (which still hasn’t started yet, by the way, and we’re all getting pretty impatient).
So the vivid colours and fascinating shapes of orchids are all about sex – they’re going to flaunt themselves for all they’re worth to get their pollinator while they can, and many have ‘chosen’ the high-risk strategy of focusing on a single pollinating insect – the ‘I’m gonna get Derek and I don’t care what it takes’ option. Since the combination of sex and gambling seems to power most of the internet (at least its spam content), why should I be surprised that it interests botanists.
So here are a few examples spotted at the Botany Hop, disporting themselves like stars on the Cannes red carpet.
Orchis mascula – early purple, or male, orchid
This is Orchis mascula, the male, or early purple, orchid. I imagine that it gets its male name from the long upcurved spur, which looks, well, interested, if not to say priapic. Or have I just got a mild dose of orchidelirium coming on?
This flower was spotted in the Loire region a few weeks ago, and we saw many by the roadside driving back home – until we got home. It doesn’t seem to get on too well with the Mediterranean climate, and may only be found in the mountains here. I haven’t seen it near my village.
Now a couple of species from the genus Ophrys which have really adapted to specific insects by evolving the lowest petal into a large patterned lip. To quote my flora:
The insect-like nature of the lip attracts males of particular insect species, stimulating them into pseudo-copulation during which they pick up pollen.
I was thrilled to find a whole colony of Ophrys lutea – Yellow Ophrys – a couple of weeks ago. This flower has evolved to attract a single genus of bee: Andrena. Apparently this flower is unusual in that the bee poses backwards, i.e. abdomen towards the plant, to pick up pollen during its ‘pseudocopulation’. Interesting.
And here’s another species, Ophrys scolopax – the Woodcock Orchid.
Ophrys scolopax: ‘That’s lovely, darling, just face me..
..and now one from the side’
No, this isn’t pollinated by woodcock, but the pattern on the lip looks a bit like that on the head of the bird. Judge for yourself.
Woodcock – thanks to wikipedia
I photographed this only a few days ago on the sauveplaine near the village. I can’t wait – but I will – to show you this astounding habitat, which just took my breath away. More in the next post.
Now the themes of exuberant showing off and dancing made me think of Count Basie: here’s a great film clip from 1943 of his ‘One o’clock jump’.
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
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’?
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
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 Mediterranean, Barlia 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
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
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
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.
You can see, but then not really see. There’s nothing much wrong with my eyesight, but this spring I find I see things differently from this time last year when I hadn’t yet started this blog. For example, all this winter I’ve been noticing clumps of tall spurges which are bent over at their tips, like this:
Spurges – photo from 2nd January
I had my suspicions about what they were, strengthened by this next stage:
Same plant,next stage
And another sighting recently confirmed it: Mediterranean spurge ((Euphorbia characias)
E. characias in March
Note the characteristic violet-brown nectar glands. Now last year I hadn’t even registered that all these clumps of this spurge existed, even though I must have ‘seen’ them.
And here’s another puzzling example:
Orchid – but which one? (photo: CL)
An orchid I first thought was the Lady orchid (Orchis purpurea). Although it’s not exactly like the one I blogged last year here, the species does seem quite variable (the reliable site FloreAlpes has a very varied photogallery here). Eventually I found a better identification – Himantoglossum robertianum (see next post). Now as of today I’ve seen dozens of these this year on the roadsides near my village, solitary like this and in clumps, but note the date on last year’s blog: May 21st. Again, what was I looking at during last March and April?
Now this is partly due to what I call the Reliant Robin Effect: I used to have one of those peculiar three-wheeled cars because I could drive it on my motorbike licence, and I suddenly noticed for the first time how many of them there were on the road. I also used to teach psychology, and I know this is called salience: we pay most attention to things most relevant (salient) to us, but I think there’s a bit more to it. Plants have more meaning to me now: they remind me of comments and conversations and are a part of the things I want to do. Sightings also link in to some of my other ideas, about ecology, evolution and environmentalism for example. And you have to be curious, to want to understand better – just wanting to collect plants isn’t enough.
There’s a worrying side to all this too, of course: if I’m paying more attention to plants, what are all the other things I could be noticing, which aren’t yet salient to me? And what has all this botany replaced – what have I stopped seeing?
These lines of thought fitted well with a book I read this week which made a big impression on me – I’ll review it next time.
I never need much of an excuse to play a song by Billie Holiday, and this seemed, well, salient: I’ll be seeing you.
This is a perennial, found all over France (except Brittany, maybe wrong soil), but rare in Britain. It likes limestone hillsides and woods – which is where I saw this one.
The Lady orchid was probably named after Our Lady, i.e. the Virgin Mary. Geoffrey Grigson comments that English plant names starting ‘Lady’ often derived from German monastic herbals of the 16th century, and were unknown before these herbals were translated – similar English names before then tended to use the name Mary. It must be an Anglo-German connection: the French name is Orchis pourpre (purple orchid).
The Lady prefix tended to be used to honour particularly medicinal or attractive plants. So Lady = Pretty, and this plant is undeniably pretty. But hang on, isn’t there a contradiction in the name? Yes, of course, orchid derives from the Greek orchis, meaning testicle, because of the shape of the underground tubers.
Something with balls becoming a lady? Here we’re in the realm of the latest Pedro Almodóvar film, La piel que habito (The skin I live in) – review here. Even more so if you consider the names of this flower in Occitan: l’òme penjat, l’embriaïga, lo soldat (the hanged man, the drunkard, and the soldier – a film title in itself). I think it’s the red face and lolling tongue – and maybe a phallic symbol too. You can’t read much about orchids before realising that, as a village shop proprietress once warned me of the Sunday papers, ‘They’re just about sex, sex, sex’.
Firstly, the botanical side. The flowers of orchids have evolved such a huge range of strategems to achieve not only pollination, but cross-pollination (fertilisation with pollen from another plant of the same species) that they became fascinating to Charles Darwin as he developed evidence to support his recently-published Origin of species (see this photojournal which reminded me of an orchid anniversary). The whole orchid flower is constructed to ensure that its own pollen does not reach its own stigma, and to this end is often adapted to a particular insect or other pollinator, which in turn adapts to the orchid – an example of coevolution. The crucial thing about cross-pollination is that it increases the variety of the genetic make-up of the seeds, helping Darwin prove that sexual reproduction between unrelated strains was an evolutionary advantage. He was well aware that he himself had flouted this rule in marrying his own first cousin, Emma Wedgwood, and all his life he worried that this was the cause of his children’s illnesses and frailties.
Certainly this orchid habit of looking outward for pollinating partners has resulted in rapid evolution in the family, with more than 24,000 species identified worldwide – four times as many as all mammal species put together.
Now the social/psychological side. Orchid collecting became astonishingly popular for well-off Victorian gentlemen soon after the first exotic species were brought to Britain by plant collectors, who often followed in the wake of British Navy expeditions. Entire forests were stripped of millions of orchids. An English botanist wrote in 1878: ‘Not satisfied with taking 300 or 500 specimens of a fine orchid, they must scour the whole country and leave nothing for miles. This is no longer collecting; this is wanton robbery.’ Like Darwin at Down House, the gentry built hothouses and eagerly sought rare specimens which they had to pollinate by hand in the absence of the necessary insect– the craze became known as orchidelirium. Yes, gentlemen – after all, a rather obsessional hobby involving dangerous foreign travel, semi-legal activities, a whiff of exotic sex and ostentatious display of wealth and prestige: what’s not to like for a rich chap?
These flowers and these themes – Mariolatry, hanged men, the search for sexual partners and obsession in hothouses – should all feature in a film, say by a gifted director with a taste for melodrama – come on, Pedro!
So back to his latest film – here’s Concha Buika, who features in it with this song En mi piel:
and just because I love her stuff and would like her to do an album with this guitarist, Javier Limón, here’s Oro santo: