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Light as lead

A wonderful walk among vineyards and through woods in the October sunshine was crowned by the sight of a species new to me : Plumbago europaea, aka European plumbago or Leadwort, growing in a dense clump beside a vineyard.

Clump of Plumbago europaea on bank of vineyard

A close look at the flowers, and a comparison with the Plumbago auriculata/capensis growing in my garden demonstrates the likeness and confirms the identification, with the characteristic calyx showing spikes with drops of liquid, reminiscent of carnivorous plants (which these are not!).

Plumbago europaea – flowers

Plumbago auriculata

I was curious about the name, but haven’t been able to find much to explain the connection between these plants, and their family the Plumbaginaceae, and the metal lead. Richard Mabey’s Flora Britannica suggests this family (the Leadworts themselves are rare in Britain) were thought to cure lead poisoning. Evidently this was known to Linnaeus who named P. Europaea in 1753.

Although named the European plumbago, its distribution is Mediterranean – gardening websites suggest it could be grown in greenhouses in northern Europe. P. auriculata comes, as its alternative name suggests, from the Cape region of South Africa.

Since links to music videos have to be a paying proposition for this blog, I’ll just give a name and a title and you can take it from there if you want. At the moment I’ve been listening a lot to Stephane Belmondo and his trio, and the album Love for Chet. I saw them live this summer – they’re a really tight trio and the guitarist Jesse Van Ruller plays some lovely solos. No connection at all to lead or to botany.



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Linnaeus, Erasmus Darwin, and the Canna lily

There are plenty of figures I admire in the history of botany, but there are two whom I can’t help liking as well. They are Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778), and Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802), the grandfather of the more famous Charles. Both had enormous and infectious enthusiasm for botany and all the sciences, and both were great communicators: Linnaeus enjoyed teaching and was well loved by his students; Darwin set himself the challenge of popularising in exuberant poetry the classification system of Linnaeus. He was also a leading light in the Lunar Society, a group which included amateurs like himself, industrialists such as Josiah Wedgwood and Matthew Boulton, and scientists such as James Watt and Joseph Priestley.


Why write about them all of a sudden? Because the Canna lily is in flower in my garden (above). That may not seem to answer the question. I’ll explain.

Linnaeus is best remembered for having achieved the heroic task of renaming the natural world, giving each species a two-part name: the genus (which includes close relatives) and the species names – the second identifying the individual. But beyond that he wondered how to group all these genera into a larger structured order, and hit upon an idea introduced in 1717 by Sebastien Vaillant, botanist at the Jardin du Roi in Paris. Vaillant spiced up his lectures by talking of the sex life of flowers – the anthers being the males with their pollen, and the stigma and ovule being the females. Linnaeus realised that he could use this to classify plants by the number of stamens and stigmas borne by their flowers. He wrote:

‘The flowers’ leaves (n.b. = calyx and corolla) contribute nothing to generation, but only do service as a bridal bed, which the great Creator has so gloriously arranged, adorned with such noble bed curtains and perfumed with so many soft scents that the bridegroom with his bride might there celebrate with so much the greater solemnity. When now the bed is prepared, it is time for the bridegroom to embrace his beloved bride and offer her his gifts; I mean then one sees how the testicula open and powder the pulvarem genitalem, which falls upon the tubam and fertilises the ovarium’

(Praeludia Sponsaliarum Plantarum, 1729)

So far, so biologically correct. But anyone who has looked closely at a flower will have seen that the bed is often well populated, and in his great work Systema Naturae published in 1735 Linnaeus was forced to describe orders such as ‘Decendria: ten husbands in the same marriage’ i.e. a flower with ten stamens. The illicit thrill of plant sex may have contributed to the popularity of plant collecting in the eighteenth century, , but this scandalised many people and brought Linnaeus some scientific opposition.   Johann Siegesbeck, a St Petersburg academician, denounced Linnaeus’s ‘lewd’ system with its ‘loathsome harlotry’. Linnaeus had his revenge: he named an unpleasant small-flowered weed Sigesbeckia.


Linnaeus in his wedding portrait of 1739, seen holding a sprig of the species he named after himself – Linnaea borealis.

Yes, you say, but Canna lilies? Well, they are one of the few flowers to have a single anther and single stamen – the sparsely populated order Monandria Monogyna in Linnaeus’s system. When Linnaeus married, verse composed for the wedding portrayed him as a ‘monandrian lily’ – a Canna. So these flowers, often seen in municipal plantings, could be said to symbolise monogamy and fidelity.


Canna flower showing  the petal-like structures of the anther (the curl of yellow against the orange, on the right) and stigma (the curl on the left)

Monogamy was a fine theme for the devout Linnaeus, who married but once. By contrast the atheistical Erasmus Darwin sought the pleasures of life, siring twelve children by his two wives and a governess. Darwin was however an enthusiastic supporter of Linnaeus’s simplified system, and conceived what to us might seem a crazy challenge: to portray a system of scientific nomenclature in wild verse for which the only adjective has to be flowery.


Erasmus Darwin, by Joseph Wright of Derby, 1770

His The Loves of the Plants, published in 1784, begins with the Canna:

First the tall CANNA lifts his curled brow

Erect to heaven, and plights his nuptial vow;

The virtuous pair, in milder regions born,

Dread the rude blast of autumn’s icy morn;

Round the chill fair he folds his crimson vest,

And clasps the timorous beauty to his breast.

Well, you can see why Byron wrote of ‘Darwin’s pompous chime / That mighty master of unmeaning rhyme’.

Darwin, like Linnaeus, was also in error in assuming that it was the norm for flowers to be fertilised by pollen from their own anthers. In fact many plants have adaptations to favour cross-pollination, and it was Erasmus’s grandson Charles who wrote a book on how orchids in particular achieve this.

I recommend wholeheartedly the books which introduced me to this story: The Poet as Botanist by Molly Mahood, and The Lunar Men by Jenny Uglow.

Finding a jazz track with the theme of monogamy is almost as hard as finding one on botanical nomenclature, but here’s Charlie Haden with a tune he composed for his wife Ruth, played with Pat Metheny. (Ah, this doesn’t seem to be authorised anymore on WordPress, so look up Charlie Haden and First Song on youtube.)





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New arrivals

There’s an air of something new afoot when I visit the Sauveplaine, site of a wild fire catastrophe last year.  The feeling that I’m in a plant cemetery with remains in ashes all around is being replaced by another impression. Plants are returning, slowly, but it’s not just that gradual replacement of one generation by another – there’s a sense in which Nature is doing it’s own thing, which is not what we expect. A scene of devastation changes into one in which the blackened limbs of bushes become a style of architecture for the return en masse of the stately asphodels.


And the new growth finds ways to use that architecture: I’ve not noticed wild asparagus climbing like bindweed before, and the embrace of the charred trunk is very moving.


Then there are the new arrivals, plants I haven’t seen there before, perhaps because they had been hidden by dense undergrowth, perhaps because they are profiting from the empty spaces. One is this lovely little red-brown flower I hadn’t seen anywhere else, I see from tela botanica that it’s not very common. It’s Nonea – Nonea erecta to be precise.


Another new one from the Boraginaceae family, to accompany the Cerinthe I posted the other day.

And this little Valerian: Valeriana tuberosa.


Finally and most spectacularly, this group of squills: Scilla hyacinthoides, which were probably there before since they grow from bulbs, but which were somehow unremarked in in my careful quartering of the ground. As is the case for the valerian and the asphodels which grow from tubers, the plants with underground reserves are having a field day.


I’ve read that the biodiversity after a fire reaches a peak in the second or third year afterwards, and then declines as trees and shrubs start to take the light and as conditions get more competitive. I’ll watch and report.

So, it’s not a slow return of what was before, it’s something else. Cue for a tune.

Somethin’ Else, by Cannonball Adderley and Miles Davis.






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Cerinthe major – Honeywort

It’s officially the first day of Spring here, a glorious sunny day, and here’s a photo to celebrate. I was immensely cheered yesterday to find this Honeywort (Cerinthe major) on a Sunday afternoon stroll. That’s perhaps the wrong word: I was hunting flowers and M was hunting wild asparagus, of which she found a handful for an omelette, another spring tradition.

I don’t know why in five years of searching, eyes always on the ground, I’ve never found this plant before since it’s not uncommon. But yesterday there were clumps of it all over that hillside, unmistakeable with the characteristic leaves blotched with white, and the two-coloured corolla. It’s a member of the Boraginaceae family which mostly have blue or red flowers as borage itself does, of course. I see from the internet that there’s a purple variety of Cerinthe popular in gardens – a reversion to type, perhaps.

No time to look for music today. I’m preparing a post on almond trees – also seen on yesterday’s walk – more fascinating and mysterious the more I read, and that will have some jazz as usual. Happy Spring!


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Friends and neighbours


I’m rather late in writing this since my starting point is this plant, Dittrichia viscosa, otherwise known in this part of France as la Vendangeuse since it flowers in September and October during the vendanges,, and often appears in great numbers in the vines.

But the vendanges are long over, those of us who pick grapes for a friend have eaten the celebration meal given to us, and we’ve been to an evening fête to welcome the vin primeur with roast chestnuts and sausages. The vines are all turning from their almost uniform green to the palette running from bright yellow through dull brown to deep crimson, revealing the individuality of their cepage, their grape variety.

Though its flowering glory is past, I wanted to write about this plant because I realised that in its humble way it has accompanied me during my years in France. I say a sort of ‘Bonjour’ to it when it appears, as I do to my friends and neighbours. As a friend does, it will make me think of other times we’ve met, stimulating memories of places, conversations, and activities. I imagine that this is true for naturalists in other domains – birdwatchers, geologists, butterfly enthusiasts – and that this encounter with the familiar and well-loved is one of the things which keep us at it.

So when I took the photo above, I was on a botanical walk recently with a group and leader all new to me, and seeing the golden stars made me say to myself ‘Oh, hello! Fancy seeing you here! I’m glad you turned up for this new adventure. Do you remember that afternoon when you were with a big clump of friends by that old deserted chapel? And didn’t we have fun in the vines this year! I saw you along the motorway too, but I couldn’t stop to say hello’.

Stacey Kent with, of course, You’ve got a Friend’.




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A catastrophe – and some signs of hope

It’s been a while since my last post, but a major event has made me turn again to my keyboard.

On Wednesday, 10th August a forest fire swept over a vast area to the north-west of my village, burning all living things in its path to charcoal and ashes. About 150 hectares (around 370 acres) of oak scrub and garrigue were reduced, as the newspaper Midi Libre reported, to a lunar landscape. Why is that serious, when at the same time a larger fire was threatening the outskirts of Marseille, and there were many fires raging in Portugal? Because in my neck of the (damaged) woods, four firefighters were seriously injured, and because the area blasted to a botanical ground zero included my beloved Sauveplaine. The human cost is of course by far the most grave, but forgive me if on this blog I concentrate on the effects on an area of outstanding wild beauty.

I first wrote about this area in May 2013 here, and this is one of the photos I took then.

The Sauveplaine in May 2013

The Sauveplaine in May 2013

Like a meadow, rich in pyramidal and other orchids, lilies, grape hyacinths, wild thyme and many other plants – I had started a list for a small patch which had reached 105 species. This is the same area now.

The 'meadow' after the fire

The ‘meadow’ after the fire

I still feel the transformation of this landscape as a physical blow. It was eerie beyond belief to visit after the fire – desolated, empty, motionless and dark, as if haunted by something more supernatural than a fire. No insects. A very few disorientated birds far overhead. Silence.

Near where the group of figures stood in my post of May 25, 2013

Near where the group of figures stood in my post of May 25, 2013

A few more views of the aftermath.

Where there had been a blue sea of  Viper's bugloss (Echium vulgare)

Where there had been a blue sea of Viper’s bugloss (Echium vulgare)

If you want to see more images of how it was, try my previous posts to this one, in 2015.

Well, I said to myself, there are two things to do: one is to see what can be done in the village to remember the Sauveplaine and to support the families of the fire fighters, and the other is to document how nature responds to a catastrophe like that.

I have to report the tragic news that one firefighter subsequently died of his injurues, while two remain in hospital in a serious but stable condition. One has been released from hospital. A Support Commitee has been established to register expressions of solidarity, and to collect funds for these four and their families : see here for their Facebook page. I’ll report later on other local initiatives.

Fires are most often nowadays due to human acts such as discarded cigarettes, but they have always occurred from time to time in the garrigue, as a result of lightning strikes, for example. Plants have evolved to survive fires as species, even if individuals are lost, and those able to colonise burnt ground are the plants we see here every day.

For example, the Kermes oak (Quercus coccifera) which forms a small bush up to 2 metres high and has small, holly-like leaves, has extensive underground stems and can regenerate when all above ground has been burnt or grazed by animals. Similar adaptations help all plants with underground bulbs, corms or rhizomes, such as asparagus – the best place to hunt for the shoots in Spring is in areas which have had a fire. These species are common in the garrigue which experiences a very hot and dry summer because the same adaptations help the plants survive drought.

So I was optimistic that there would be regrowth, and scoffed at friends who suggested the area would have to be ‘replanted’. Even so, I reckoned, sadly, that in my lifetime I wouldn’t see the Sauveplaine regain the glory I had known up until the 9th of August.

I was however surprised when I went up to the Sauveplaine again on 27th September to see how much regrowth had already started, aided by a couple of days of rain. The most positive image I carry away is that of drifts of Autumn squill (Scilla autumnalis) – a plant I had not noticed there before, because it had been hidden by other vegetation I suppose. A survivor thanks to its underground bulb.

Autumn squill - Scilla autumnalis

Autumn squill – Scilla autumnalis

A group of Scilla autumnalis

A group of Scilla autumnalis

And other plants leading the resurgence, among around twenty species I noticed:

Shoots of wild rocket - Diplotaxis tenuifolia

Shoots of wild rocket – Diplotaxis tenuifolia

Fennel - Foeniculum vulgare

Fennel – Foeniculum vulgare

Bramble - Rubus sanctus

Bramble – Rubus sanctus

Every gardener who’s tried to get rid of brambles knows how deep and tenacious are the roots!

Pitch trefoil - Psoralea bitumenosa

Pitch trefoil – Psoralea bitumenosa

This shows how deep the roots of this trefoil must go, if it has avoided being destroyed by heat.

Wild asparagus - Asparagus officinalis

Wild asparagus – Asparagus officinalis

Bizarre – asparagus should do this in Spring! There were so many shoots, I gathered enough to make an omelette.

Lentisc - Pistachier lentiscus

Lentisc – Pistachier lentiscus

Turpentine tree - Pistacia terebinthus

Turpentine tree – Pistacia terebinthus

You can be sure that I’ll be going back regularly, and posting more reports on the regeneration of this site.

For the glory that was the Sauveplaine, but especially in memory of the brave firefighter who died, here’s Charles Lloyd’s group playing his tune ‘Requiem’, from the Athens Concert.


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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’.


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