Category Archives: Verbascum

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

Bassics of botany: Verbascum sinuatum and rotundifolium – Mullein

Verbascum flower close up – but which one?

I’ve noticed tall plants with yellow flowers and started taking pictures of them, quickly realising that I might be seeing more than one similar species. This happens often, and thumbing through the flower guides, I’m reminded of the process wikipedia calls ‘disambiguation’: looking for the crucial features which tell you if you’ve got two examples of plant A, or one of A and one of B. The guide I use (see Resources and Links) helpfully puts this sort of  feature in italics.












Left: V. rotundifolium. 

Below:  V. sinuatum (as is photo used at start)





So these are the results so far for Verbascum: both plants have a rosette of large leaves at the base, from which rises a tall (60-70cm) flower stem, bearing many yellow flowers which have purple hairy stamens. I’m pretty sure I’ve got V. sinuatum whose key distinguishing features are a branched flower-bearing stem or inflorescence, stamens of equal length, and basal leaves with wavy edges. I’m slightly less confident that another plant is V. rotundifolia, whose key differences are that the inflorescence is a single spike, that two stamens are longer than the other three, and the basal leaves are rounder. Another possible here is V. blattaria: the disambiguation isn’t yet complete. Below: flower of V. rotundifolium showing unequal stamens.

Mullein comes from the French molène, from mou/molle meaning soft, describing the  soft, flabby leaves (Latin mollis – hence to mollify).  Verbascum is a large genus of about 250 species, well- known in gardens because they’re tall, long-lasting, and tolerate dry soil (they tend to have long tap roots). They are mostly biennial – in the first year they grow a flat rosette of leaves, often very large, and the second year a tall flower-spike. I have read that the stems are an indication of any contamination of the soil, which if present makes them crooked.

I’m featuring this flower because, like all the flowers in this ‘Bassics of botany’ series, it was well known in ancient Greece – apparently the tall stems were set alight and carried in funeral processions.  Maybe this habit, or just the appearance,  is recalled in the Occitan names la candela de St Joan, and lo candelièr.

Some mulleins were, and are still, widely used in herbal remedies, especially for asthma, sore throats and lung problems – but paradoxically also in herbal cigarettes. One site insists:  ‘Mullein is a fine medicinal for the lungs, even when you smoke it.’ I wonder if the fleshy lung-shaped leaves make this an example of the Doctrine of Signatures – the idea that plants are divinely marked in shape to show humans their uses?

Anyway, this serves as a link to Hippocrates of Cos (c. 469-399 BCE), the ‘father of medicine’ who established a school on the islandof Cos at the shrine of Asclepius ( see this an entangled bank entry). Hippocrates taught all over Greece, but left no text of his own – we have the writings of those he taught.  He proposed the idea that illness originates in physical causes acting on the body, rather than in supernatural intervention. He advocated passive treatment – bed, rest, care, diet – very like any physician up till about 1800, and his concentration on the physical opened the door for systematic herbalism. His followers codified the famous Hippocratic Oath, sworn by English physicians till the last century, and their texts, known as the Corpus Hippocraticum, contains descriptions of between 300 and 400 medicinal plants as used by Hippocrates, including rosemary,  thyme,  mint, fennel,  caraway,  rose,  cinnamon,  clove,  anise,  frankincense,  myrrh, coriander, garlic, opium,  belladonna,  and mandrake.

I found a mention of using boiled mullein to reduce swelling in a tract on ulcers, attributed to Hippocrates but presumably part of this Corpus. If you’re interested, this tract, which you can find here, is worth reading as an example of the level of detailed observation which went into Hippocratic practice.

That’s enough on him for a botany blog, rather than a Classics lecture.

Music: the bassist Avishai Cohen, former sideman of Chick Corea, and who now leads his own trio.  From the album Continuo (2006), this is the track Nu Nu, featuring also the oud player Amos Hoffman.

Next: Woke up this mornin’ and my pressed flower was gone – back to the blues, and more plant A/plant B angst.



Filed under Verbascum