Size isn’t everything – Iris lutescens

Dwarf iris - Iris lutescens -  the colour variety which gives it its name

Dwarf iris – Iris lutescens – the colour variety which gives it its name

A moment this week which I’ve been anticipating keenly – my first sight of the dwarf iris, Iris lutescens, in the garrigue near where I live. Why is it special? Because it’s beautiful, its form enhanced, in my view, by its modest size – usually only about 20cm high. Its name comes form the Latin for yellow, luteus, but there are common blue and white versions of the same species.

A group of dwarf irises in the sort of terrain they prefer

A group of dwarf irises in the sort of terrain they prefer


Irises – it has to be said, probably the taller species – have impressed us humans for a long time. The upstanding slim pointed leaf-blades have reminded all cultures of spears and swords: the yellow flag iris is called Jacob’s sword in English, and other names such as segg and gladdon or gladwyn betray repectively Anglo-Saxon and Celtic words for swords too. The blue or white irises seen often here on banks and in ditches are Iris germanica, called la cotèla (knife) or la cotelassa (dagger) in Occitan. I think that’s one reason why I prefer the smaller, less warlike dwarf iris – ‘nail-scissor iris’ wouldn’t have the same belligerent ring to it.

The large species have showy flowers, of six tepals (the name used for the similar petals and sepals in this family of plants) carried on long stems, and perhaps for these reasons they were sacred to the ancient Egyptians who used a symbolic representation of the plant on the first sceptres, and they also appear in pictures and artefacts from Babylon.

The Greek goddess Iris portrayed on a drinking vessel

The Greek goddess Iris portrayed on a drinking vessel

The name iris means rainbow in Greek, and it is supposed that the plant was so christened because of the range of vivid colours in each flower, as well as between varieties and species. Greek mythology includes the goddess Iris, who acts as a messenger for the gods, particularly Zeus and Hera, when they need to communicate between each other or with mortals. This may be because the rainbow seems to connect heaven and earth. There are two statues of Iris among the Elgin marbles.

Exactly when the plant acquired its present name is not clear – the term iris is used by Pliny the Elder (23-79 CE) in his Natural History, in which he describes in detail the cultivation of irises in northern Europe for their magical and medical properties. Three months before harvesting, the ground around the plant was soaked in honeyed water, and three circles were drawn around it with the point of a sword.

But then this name seems to have been forgotten, and until the 16th century they were commonly given either the sword-names listed above, or fleur de lis or flower de luce. One explanation for the latter is because the yellow flag iris, Iris pseudacorus, grew plentifully by the river Luts (or Lits) in what is now southern Belgium, and a symbolic representation of three of its tepals was adopted by Gaulish and Germanic kings as the well-known heraldic symbol of the fleur-de-lys. It became the emblem of the French royalty since Louis VII, so identified with the royal cause that anyone wearing the flower after the French Revolution was likely to be sent to the guillotine. Napoleon substituted the bee as a national emblem.

The flower pushing its way between stones

The flower pushing its way between stones


The dwarf iris is a tough customer, native to the Mediterranean region of France since it positively thrives in heat, drought, and on poor limestone soils. It’s often dug up for transplanting to gardens, but conditions there may well be too rich for it. In the garrigue you often find it among patches of rock and stone chips where no other plant can get a foothold.
Blue flames

Blue flames


I have other, more personal reasons for my attachment to this flower. It was in a patch of garrigue near M’s house that I first saw a carpet of these flowers, lighting up the hillside like flames, so they remind me of walks we’ve taken together. So to accompany this post, why not Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames, because if M asked me if everything is OK, I’d say ‘Yeh, Yeh’.


Size isn’t everything

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Who put the Oc in Rock?*

A few weeks ago Alain, the teacher at my Occitan language class, brought in fifteen sprigs of greenery he’d gathered on a Sunday stroll, and passed them round for us to identify. The aim of the exercise was of course to talk about the Occitan names for these plants. While it’s often said – especially by people who don’t speak Occitan – that it’s a hybrid language of French and Spanish, the exercise served to remind me that many plant names in Occitan (or Oc for short) differ greatly from the French.

Ruscus aculeatus, or petit houx, or grifol

Ruscus aculeatus, or petit houx, or grifol

For example, Ruscus aculeatus or Butcher’s broom is Le Petit houx in French, but in Occitan it’s lo grifol. That’s also the word in Oc for a fountain, and the derivation seems to come from the verb grifolhar: to spurt like a spring or fountain of water. I suppose because the shoots erupt like a green fountain.

I’m trying to compile a list of the plants I identify in four languages: the scientific (Latin) name, and also English, French and Occitan. Each name has its own history and set of associations, the discovery of which is, for me, one of the most valuable results of my botanising.

Asparagus acutifolius, or asperge, or esparga

Asparagus acutifolius, or asperge, or esparga

Another topical example we passed around is Asparagus acutifolius, wild asparagus, asperge in French and esparga in Oc. Clearly both French and Oc here come from the same Latin root. But I include it here because now it’s the season to hunt for the slender new shoots in the garrigue, of which more below. Luckily for me M has the knack of spotting the little spears among grass at ten paces, and we’ve had several tasty omelettes and once collected so much we cooked it as a vegetable to accompany lamb steaks.

A fistful of asparagus shoots - delicious!

A fistful of asparagus shoots – delicious!

We examined a tough and spiny slim bramble-like stem of Common Smilax/Sarsparilla (Smilax aspera),: even the leaves of this little horror are covered in spines and end in hooks. It’s closely related to asparagus, and in fact the young shoots can be mistaken for the latter – no worry, as both can be eaten. The Oc names are very evocative: estaca paure and aganta paure (tie up or attach a poor unfortunate) conjure up the picture of someone returning to the village in the dark, and falling into a thicket of this thorny stuff as if into a pile of barbed wire. It’s also named estrangla cat – no explanation needed. I’ve written about the plant before, here.

Smilax aspera

Smilax aspera

Alain also brought in a branch of the evergreen Holm Oak (Quercus ilex), le chène vert in French and l’euse in Oc. The tree is so common and the Oc name is so widely used that French has taken to calling it le yeuse as well. Now this tree links to the garrigue: the name for an area covered in Holm oak is a garrolhas, and the name for oaks in general (and the Kermes oak, Quercus coccifera, in particular) is lo garric.

A footpath in the garrigue - evergreen holm oak in the background

A footpath in the garrigue – evergreen holm oak in the background

Now I thought till recently that the vegetation – garrigue – took its name from the Oc for oak, but not so – the origins are much older. According to Histoire de la Garrigue, by Jean-Paul Gervois, the linguist Alain Nouvel concluded in 1980 that the word comes from a proto-indoeuropean word something like kal denoting stone and, by extension, mountain, and which dates to perhaps 35,000 years ago. It resembles words in Arabic (garro – rock), Hebrew (ker – stone wall), and Basque gara (high place). I lived in Wales for over 20 years and learned some Welsh, and I’d like to add that there’s also a striking similarity with the Welsh craig (plural garreg, rock) and caer (wall or fort). Starting with the words for a tree and where it grows, we get a view of how groups of humans have moved and diverged over thousands of years, but retained a common stock of language.

You see? The words chène and oak just don’t take you on this journey.

I should point out , at the risk of confusing you further, that the proper scientific term for this sort of vegetation is ‘matorral’.

*Music obsessives like me will be reminded of the Barry Mann song Who put the Bomp (‘Who put the Bomp in the Bomp pah bomp pah bomp/Who put the Ram in the Rama lama ding dong?’ Questions we’ve all asked ourselves sometime or another).  Relive that golden moment here

But for the song to go with this post about my evening class, I keep hearing in my head the Dinah Washington version of Teach me tonight.

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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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Going against the flow

The Domaine de Cadables

The Domaine de Cadables


I had an eye-opening experience last Saturday. With friends, I went to the Domaine of winemakers Bernard and Christine Isarn (the Domaine de Cadablès – pronounced cadder-pless- see more here) and did the balade vigneronne: a walk round the vineyards. Over a couple of hours, as we weaved our way round his 30 hectares on the side of an old volcanic hill, Bernard explained the principles behind his methods of growing vines. I wrote a short account on my Blip journal here, but knew I should say a bit more about it on my blog. Everything Bernard and Christine do is aimed at supporting the greatest possible biodiversity, of micro-organisms, fungi, plants and animals.
Bernard Isarn

Bernard Isarn in front of his vines and a stand of trees


Firstly, he doesn’t remove the weeds between the rows. He lets them grow over the winter, then ploughs them in as green manure and leaves them. Sometimes he lets his two horses into the vineyards to eat the weeds and leave their manure. If the weeds don’t grow as high as the vines, he says, they’re no problem, and passing through with a tractor again to cut them would compress the soil and risk damage to the vines. The vines are mostly old, and he supposes that their root systems go perhaps ten metres deep, and may be up to thirty or forty metres long, so they’re not threatened by a few surface plants.

Secondly he leaves old vine terraces fallow for five years after uprooting old vines, to allow the soil to recover. New vines he lets grow for at least five years before taking a crop, to allow the vines and the soil to come into balance.

Thirdly, between the plots he leaves stands of trees and bushes – they were there already since it was a property which had been abandoned for some time. He thins the trees to let light in, uses the trunks as firewood, and leaves the branches and trash on the ground for the insects and the fungi. Birds started out of the brush as we walked round, and he is very proud of that. Of the 30 hectares of the Domaine, he has only six and a half actively under vines.

Some of the biodiversity on the road between two parcels of vines - 'We have lots of snakes' says Bernard

Some of the biodiversity on the road between two parcels of vines – ‘We have lots of snakes’ says Bernard


Fourthly he manages the resources he finds to increase diversity of habitat – finding a spring on the land, he scooped out soil to create a marshy area to encourage reeds and water birds and so on.
The view from the hill of Cadables - the Mediterranean is on the horizon, thirty kilometres away.

The view from the hill of Cadables – the Mediterranean is on the horizon, thirty kilometres away.


Does this work? I told Bernard about the experience I had this summer of picking in a parcelle of Grenache vines which had been abandoned for two years. The weeds were high, the grapes small since the vines hadn’t been pruned, but there was no mould and the vines themselves looked surprisingly healthy. Bernard nodded and said he expected to boost natural control of pests, and revitalise the soil. ‘The soil is alive’ he kept saying ‘you have to feed it and let nature work in it.’

Bernard and Christine have had the Domaine for nine years, and when they started he took his grapes to the local Cave Cooperative. But the advice they gave him infuriated him. ‘They were only interested in quantity’ he says, ‘and they suggested ripping up my 60-year old vines, replanting, spraying, replanting again every fifteen years when the vines wore out. I came out of the Cave saying to myself that I wanted to follow the opposite path – le chemin à l’envers‘ and this has now become the name of one of his red wines. It also means, for him, the opposite to the conventional commercial relationships: ‘Usually the big buyers and the big agricultural companies are on top of the pyramid’ he says, ’and the poor little producers are all at the bottom, powerless. I wanted to change all that and put the individual producer at the top. I am my own boss here.’

He has been producing his own wines for four years now, after serving an apprenticeship with another, more experienced, local winemaker. I’ve been buying and tasting his wines for the last three years, and to my mind they get better and better. This is surely in part due to his increasing skill as a winemaker, but the intensity of flavour speaks of the health of the vines and the way they can extract minerals from the soil – something boosted by fungal mycorrhizal associations as I wrote about here.
I’m looking forward to going back in the spring to see what biodiversity of plant life emerges, particularly in the new wetland area. Expect further updates.

The next day I heard about a startlingly similar project all the way away in Brazil. The Food Programme focused on Leontino Balbo Jnr. and his experiments on a huge scale with organic sugar production in Sao Paulo state – listen again here. He says he learned about natural balance in the forest as a child, and decided when he started working in the family firm to try a variety of cane which had been rejected by Brazilian growers because it was vulnerable to disease. He returned the cane leaves to the land instead of burning them – an addition of 20 tons of organic matter per hectare, and designed new tyres for the farm machinery to avoid compressing the soil. He had to wait five years, but noticed that the vulnerable cane was now free of disease, and beginning to crop more heavily than ever. At the same time, the number of species of insects and vertebrates in the cane fields zoomed up.I don’t have space to describe in full what he has achieved, so I recommend his talk, illustrated with slides, on youtube.

It was given to a Business Social Responsibility conference in 2012. A long article about him and his ideas for all farming, which he calls ERA: Ecosystem Revitalising Agriculture,was published in the magazine Wired here.
One of his comments struck me as just like the approach of Bernard Isarn:

It is not my goal, like some big corporations do, to make the growers dependent on the system or to add extra costs. This technology aims to make the growers independent again, after almost four decades of domination [by big business]

The chemin à l’envers again. Long may both Bernard and Leontino run contrary to the predominant stream, and may they convince others. At the very least, the work they’re doing is conserving a reserve of biodiversity which one day will help us all.

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In a square foot of earth: Agrimony (Agrimonia eupatoria)

Agrimony - Agrimonia eupatoria-  in August

Agrimony – Agrimonia eupatoria- in August


I have had this post in mind since early summer, and so what has happened since has driven what I then wanted to say from my mind. I’ll try to remember – here goes.
I’ve seen a few of these yellow spikes in my part of the Midi, all on north-facing banks or in ditches. It’s not that common, and I guess that this is the extreme of its usually more northern and temperate range. It’s not listed in my Mediterranean flower guides. I think of it as a ‘plant on the edge’ – one that just about survives here, but which could vanish if climate or other conditions change.
One feature which may help it is that its seeds are covered in tiny hooks and cling on easily to any passing animal or clothing, ensuring that they are dispersed widely and thus might find the right conditions.
Agrimony plant showing the characteristic deeply-divided pinnate leaves

Agrimony plant showing the characteristic deeply-divided pinnate leaves


Agrimony has long been used as a medicinal plant: legend (and its scientific name) has it that its healing properties were discovered by King Mithridates VI, aka Eupator Dionysius (132-63 BCE), who ruled over Pontus and Armenia Minor in Anatolia, Turkey. He had an eventful life which included spending seven years in the wilderness cultivating an immunity to poisons, which he believed had ended his father’s life, by taking small quantities of them . Maybe that’s how he discovered agrimony – one imagines he might have exclaimed, ’Damn! This one does you good!’
The English and genus name comes from a confusion with a plant the ancient Greeks used to treat eye disorders, called argemon, and which actually resembled a poppy. From the Anglo-Saxons onwards agrimony was used for treating wounds, in a solution called ‘eau d’arquebusade’ (musket-shot water). The leaves added to tea make a spring tonic. There’s much more on healing uses here.
I also wanted to bring to your attention something from a recent article in the Guardian newspaper which bears on how I found this plant, and a recurring theme on this blog (see this, for example, and marvel at Durer’s Large piece of turf). It’s from an interview with the ‘Space oddity’ astronaut Chris Hadfield:

When Chris Hadfield was a child, his teacher took the class to a deserted parking lot, gave them each a piece of string and told them to mark off a square foot of ground and spend the hour studying it. “It was just wild weeds and stuff. I don’t remember a lot of grade six, but I remember that clearly; that if you take the time to notice, there’s a fascinating amount of things happening in one square foot of earth. It taught us appreciation and a little bit of ecology; but it was a real perspective-building thing for me. To recognise the world of wonder that exists in this little square of normal nature. And that same idea carries through to everything. If you notice the minutiae around you, I don’t know how you could ever be bored.”
Interviewed by Emma Brockes, Guardian 26th September 2013 – full version here.

More minutiae to come on this blog. In the meantime, here’s some music I found recently and just loved. It’s got no connection to the plant that I can think of, but if you can think of something, leave a comment. It’s a guitar duo, Birelli Lagrene and Sylvain Luc, and I thought their understanding of each other and their playful improvising spirits were wonderful. The whole hour-long concert’s on youtube too.

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The she-devil who helps you breathe: Sacred thornapple ( Datura wrightii)

Bush of Datura wrightii on waste ground

Bush of Datura wrightii on waste ground


This plant has a long story to tell, connecting Culpeper, Linnaeus, Charles Darwin and Carlos Castaneda, via shamans, drug users and asthmatics. Its powerful presence in the history of botany and herbalism is due to the tropane alkaloids it contains: atropine, hyoscyamine and scopolamine, which inhibit certain nerve pathways.
Datura belongs to the plant family Solanaceae, together with deadly nightshade, another potent source of atropine. But also in this family are cultivated fruits such as aubergine, peppers and tomatoes, and potatoes. I do wonder how these were first cultivated, and how many casualties there were from the first breeding experiments – we know that unripe fruits of these, and green potatoes, can still cause illness.
This particular plant has been growing for a few years in the middle of some waste ground in my village. I’ve also seen it on the river bank nearby, and planted in public flower beds, but the waste ground specimen is the largest and, I presume, oldest.
D. wrightii flower

D. wrightii flower


At first I thought it was Datura stramonium (Thornapple), but the latter has green stems, more jagged leaves, smaller flowers and upright fruits , while D. wrightii has purplish stems, wavy-edged dark leaves, large flowers and hanging fruits. All species of Datura – there are nine – are very variable, especially in size, depending on location. The name thornapple of course comes from the large spiny fruit capsules.
D. wrightii fruit capsule

D. wrightii fruit capsule


Both are introduced species, probably for decoration in gardens, but have spread and naturalised locally in southern France, Spain, and round the Mediterranean generally.
D. stramonium was the first species to be scientifically described and named Datura, from the Hindi word dhatura for the plant, by Linnaeus in 1753, though it had already been described as thornapple by Nicholas Culpeper a century before. It’s thought that the genus originated in what is now the south-west United States and Mexico, where the greatest species diversity exists, but very soon it must have arrived in India, where it has a long history in Ayurvedic medicine. Why the asthma connection? Apparently the flowers can be rolled up and smoked like a cigarette to relieve symptoms of asthma – the alkaloids inhibit the muscles in the airway walls, and so enlarge the bronchioles, making it easier to breathe. Due to other effects (see below) I would not recommend this.
Datura species have many other names, including moonflowers (because the flowers open in the evening, and are often pollinated by moths), Devil’s trumpet or Devil’s weed (from the delirium it produces), and jimsonweed. This is thought to be a corruption of ‘Jamestown weed’, after an incident in Jamestown, Virginia when the leaves were:

gather’d very young for a boil’d salad, by some of the soldiers sent thither to quell the rebellion of Bacon (1676); and some of them ate plentifully of it, the effect of which was a very pleasant comedy, for they turned natural fools upon it for several days: one would blow up a feather in the air; another would dart straws at it with much fury; and another, stark naked, was sitting up in a corner like a monkey, grinning and making mows [grimaces] at them; a fourth would fondly kiss and paw his companions, and sneer in their faces with a countenance more antic than any in a Dutch droll.
The effects lasted for eleven days. (from The History and Present State of Virginia, 1705, via wikipedia).

Charles Wright

Charles Wright


Datura wrightii was named in 1859 by the botanist Eduard Regel for the American plant collector Charles Wright (1811-85), who had found it in Texas in the 1850s. Wright did a lot of collecting for Asa Gray, Professor of Natural History at Harvard. Although he was a member of the First Church in Cambridge, Gray was a stalwart supporter of Charles Darwin and tried to reconcile theism with evolution. In view of the early world-wide spread of Datura, it’s interesting that Gray’s knowledge of American flora helped Darwin establish that fruits and seeds could cross the Atlantic.
Stanley Welsh, author of A Utah Flora, has this to say about Datura wrightii: “The flowers are the largest of any native plant in Utah, and are sweetly scented. The herbage smells like a wet dog”. Lovely.
So let’s get on to the sacred aspect, which is connected to the toxic qualities. All parts of the plant contain the alkaloids which cause delirium, delusion, fast heartbeat and a rise in body temperature, followed often by amnesia. This is serious enough to be fatal in a large number of cases. The plants are especially dangerous because the concentration of alkaloids, and their relative proportions, can vary greatly, so users never know what dose they are taking.
The delirium effect has long been used as a way to experience ‘other realities’, especially in India and by Native American tribes:

To the Chumash, D. wrightii has a female spirit, and certain shamans may specialize in the use of this plant, which communicates with them through prophetic dreams… [It] is most important . . . as part of initiatory rituals for boys. To prepare for the ritual, the initiate fasts and eats no meat for several days. He smokes a great quantity of tobacco during this time. The boy then consumes the D. wrightii beverage, which is traditionally prepared by his grandmother. He is left alone in a cave, where he must give in to the power of the plant and allow it to show him visions. At this time, the Datura spirit teaches the boy anything he might want to know, and often assists him in finding an animal spirit ally. The period of intoxication lasts for 24 hours, after which time a Datura shaman assists the initiate in constructing a life plan based on the visions he has experienced .(www.entheology.com)

But perhaps the best known use is recorded in a book once found on many young people’s shelves, including mine. In THE TEACHINGS OF DON JUAN: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge, in a segment dated Saturday, July 6, 1963 Carlos Castaneda writes:

On Monday, July 1, I cut the Datura plants don Juan had asked for. I waited until it was fairly dark to do the dancing around the plants because I did not want anybody to see me. I felt quite apprehensive. I was sure someone was going to witness my strange acts. I had previously chosen the plants I thought were a male and a female. I had to cut off sixteen inches of the root of each one, and digging to that depth with a wooden stick was not an easy task. It took me hours. I had to finish the job in complete darkness, and when I was ready to cut them I had to use a flashlight. My original apprehension that somebody would watch me was minimal compared with the fear that someone would spot the light in the bushes.
I took the plants to don Juan’s house on Tuesday, July 2. He opened the bundles and examined the pieces. He said he still had to give me the seeds of his plants. He pushed a mortar in front of me. He took a glass jar and emptied its contents — dried seeds lumped together — into the mortar.

On July 4, 1963 Castaneda applied the ointment he and Don Juan concocted over a period of days. Following that application Castaneda relates that he turned into a crow with the full ability to fly.
As with all Castaneda’s writings, you can believe what he says or not. I can only tell you that we have many Datura plants in my village, but very few crows. The young people here prefer the reliable results of Red Bull and Heineken.

You may have been afraid that after all the above,I was going to play you Cliff Richard’s Devil Woman. It’s OK, I wouldn’t be that cruel. Here’s something which should have become a jazz standard, instead of a very good pop song, which describes Castaneda’s evening antics.

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Purple loosestrife

Loosestrife at the foot of a damp wall

Loosestrife at the foot of a damp wall


If I go out looking for plants in flower now, purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria) seems hard to avoid. Since it’s a water-loving plant, and this is the middle of August and la grande chaleur, that seems surprising. But there are streams, deep ditches that collect moisture seeping from the fields, and springs, and reservoirs like this one in my village.
Purple loosestrife at the side of a reservoir

Purple loosestrife at the side of a reservoir


I feel I’m always going on about plants adapted to dry conditions here, but the truth is that each plant has its niche, and niches by definition are not characteristic of the whole.
The origins of the English name are interesting – and for this I rely totally, as I often do, on Geoffrey Grigson’s Dictionary of English Plant Names. The name was coined in 1548 by one of the first and greatest English botanists, William Turner, who took the yellow loosestrife (Lysimachia vulgaris) and purple to be the same plant. He understood the word lusimakheios, used by the Greek herbalist and physician Dioscorides to mean ‘deliverance from strife.’ The Roman Pliny described the herb as being so powerful ‘that if placed on the yoke of inharmonious oxen it will restrain their quarrelling.’

As someone who will go to any lengths to avoid an argument, this appeals to me. However, I have yet to test it with friends, neighbours or indeed oxen. I think a good way to avoid strife is to remember that like plants, humans have their preferences and their niches and their own way of seeing things. I don’t take this too far – like the great Nye Bevan I believe that voting Tory is just wrong.

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A life completed

flower
There was only one. Emerging like a miracle from the sand dunes. I took this photo in March and gave it to her. She made it her wallpaper and it was the background to her work, her writing, her photos. I’m still not sure what it is, but I’m not going to carry on looking for it, or looking it up. I’m just going to look at it. Perfect and imperfect, on its way through life.

Teleri, or Chaiselongue, my partner for forty years, died suddenly of a heart attack at a moment of happiness and light on the morning of 6th July. I’ve not had the heart since then to think of working on this blog, but I do continue to be fascinated by how things grow and change, and I’d like to continue. The posts may be shorter and further apart for a while.

Teleri’s friends and contacts on the website blipfoto.com have written wonderful tributes which you can find here.

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The twining – plant horror

It’s a miracle I’m here to bring you this post. I’ll tell you what happened. I was out as usual, with my camera, looking for new things coming into bloom. I was lucky – or I thought I was, hah! – to see some beautiful purple poppies at the side of a narrow country road near my village, on a bank above a stream. So I was snapping away…

Papaver somniferum - opium poppy

Papaver somniferum – opium poppy

…thinking that these were probably Papaver somniferum, the opium poppy. I was wondering how they got there, inching forward, leaning over and I slipped, my head went down…and I don’t remember much after. Then I must have woken up, wet, my feet still in the stream, looking above me at a dark tangle of spiny branches, thankful I was still clutching my camera to my chest.

bramble

‘Who’re you, and what the  hell  are you doing there?’ A voice came from above.  I scrambled up the steep side of the stream through the thorns, replying  ‘It’s OK,  I’m just a bit muddy, that’s all’.

‘You may be in the mud, but we’re all in the shit here, so you’re lucky’

‘What do you mean?’ I looked up. The man was  wearing what looked like usual gardening gear, but instead of a spade or a garden basket he was carrying a large billhook in one hand and a knife in the other. ‘You’re expecting trouble?’ I tried to joke. ‘The usual’, he shrugged.

twig

I looked at the ground around – I was sure – I knew – that when I fell the ground was verdant, the luxuriant growth of a warm wet spring. Now I saw dry earth from which emerged sprigs of blasted brown twigs. No colour, but here and there a small pale plant with pale flowers, in the nearest of which I saw a pale spider lurking.

Sedum ochroleucon

Sedum ochroleucon

‘What’s that?’ – a stupid question, the only form I could give to my puzzlement. And stupid because I pointed at it. As soon as I did, a shoot whipped out from the brush above the stream and a tendril began to wind round my finger.

tendril

‘Don’t move!’ The man leapt towards me and slashed violently with his billhook. ‘We should get out of here while we can – the greens are all against us now, aren’t they?’ As I looked, the pale flowers were shrinking, and the shoot telescoped in on itself.

sedum

sedumSedum

The man shoved me in the back. ‘Come this way, I’ve got a garden over there, we should be OK for a bit. But watch out for the cucumbers’

‘What?’  I’ve been nervous of many things, but never of that vegetable.

‘The squirting cucumbers.  They’ve got so they’re that strong, the seeds can rip you to shreds if you brush against them.’  I looked at the ground again as we walked away and as I’d expect in a dampish place there were lots of that low-growing plant, whose fruits I knew developed a huge pressure to squirt out and distribute their seeds.

Ecballium elaterium - squirting cucumber

Ecballium elaterium – squirting cucumber

Bang! One went off, and I saw holes appear in my new friend’s trousers. ‘Be a bit more careful, won’t you’ he shouted over his shoulder. We reached a stone wall, and he unhooked a gate and waved me to get in, quick.

‘Here I can keep the jungle at bay for a spell’ he waved his blades and looked around.

‘What do you mean? What the hell’s going on with Mother Nature?’

‘Mother Nature my arse! Evil Witch Nature more like. Look, if you’ve been asleep for years or something, I’ll explain. We never knew we were so lucky, and now it’s all begun going backwards. You used to cut a plant – now they cut you. We used to eat plants, now they’re all going poisonous. ‘ He pointed at a patch of green, and I saw  Euphorbia exigua, toxic like all spurges, growing through.

Euphorbia exigua in thyme

Euphorbia exigua in thyme and pimpernel

‘They’re getting everywhere. And you plant a lettuce, and what do you get?’ He pointed at a row which started as normal-looking salads, but ended in tall spiky plants. ’Would you eat that?’ He thrust a leaf at me – it had spines round the edges and a fearsome array along the vein.

Lactuca serriola

Lactuca serriola

An offensive salad, a lettuce with armour. It was Lactuca serriola, the supposed ancestor of cultivated salads. ‘They’re all turning back to what they were, they’ve had enough of us, we’ll be  hunter-gatherers next year, I tell you. Look, I’d better get you back to my house, the wind’ll get up tonight and then the wind-blown seeds’ll  flay you alive.’

He opened the gate and peered around. ‘Follow me!’

I was still getting my head round the fact that Nature, which I’d always believed was healthy, beneficent, reliable, could turn so nasty.

‘Watch out! Get over here quick!’ I should have leapt to him, but I turned round.  Out of the compost bin a dead brown surge was lifting the lid, falling, turning green and coming my way.

compost

It twined round me, I could feel it gripping, tightening, rooting me down, I couldn’t move. I flailed with my arms, my only free parts.

‘Hold still or you’ll get cut!’ He was hacking with the billhook, slicing expertly with the knife and I concentrated on staying still till a limb was freed. ‘I told you it’s all going backwards- the dead stuff comes alive and grows all over you – then it’ll shrink and squeeze you till it’s the size of a seedling – and what’ll be left of you then?’ He pushed me to the gate.

It was like being in the world of antimatter – full of anti-Nature, stuffed with antiplants with antigrowth. I’d lost my bearings.   I’d have to trust my new guide.

We left the garden and began to trot down a path. I followed his hunched, zig-zag gait, as if he were running under enemy fire. The wind was getting up, carrying dust, and spiky dry leaves and bits of twig which stung my face and hands. My guide pointed to his right. ’Watch out for them – they’ve got a hundred times bigger, and if they get you it’s like being hit by a nail-studded baseball bat.’

I looked across and saw great round spiny balls, like the heads of the ‘rolling thistle’ Eryngium campestre, careering past us in the gathering storm. We ran faster, but the ground seemed sticky and greasy – some gummy plant I suppose – and a colossal ball of spikes hit my friend and bowled him over. I was sure he was injured and skidded over to help him up. ‘I’m OK – bullet-proof vest under the shirt. But you’ll have had it if one hits you’.

Killer seeds in the air!

Killer seeds in the air!

Running on the path was like running on treacle. My friend was stumbling.  It was getting darker. The wind was rising and the saw-toothed seeds were about to blast our skins off. We were passing a bank of pointy little blooms as red as blood.

Trifolium purpureum

Trifolium purpureum

Hopeless. If Mother Nature wasn’t there, who was? I thought of Flora, the Roman goddess whose devotees threw lupins, vetches and chickpeas at the crowds at her festival, the Floralia. The blood-red flowers! Purple clover! As good as a vetch or a lupin, surely! I grabbed handfuls and flung them in the face of the wind, yelling ‘Flora! Flora!’  The wind increased and seemed to lift me up, and either inside or outside my head I heard the motto of the goddess resound: ‘Use life’s beauty as it blooms!’.

I was back on the country road by the poppies – but it was night. Yes, I know that this story reads like a dream, a nightmare you wake up from. And here I am back in my usual world, not in antiplant world. But just tell me, would you: if it was just a dream, how did those pictures get onto my camera?

If this story has even mildly entertained you, have a look at what the professionals can do in the video below. I declare an interest – it’s the project of my brilliant son-in-law, Si Stratton.

Banshee photo-main

Click HERE to go to see this video.

Do spread the word – link to this blog post. Link to Si’s Kickstarter page (http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/sistratton/banshee-the-game-and-feature-film). Sponsor the project – there are some great rewards on offer, including original artwork.

Good luck, Si!

Coming up soon: back to those peas – you never know when you might need them….

 

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Something’s Got a Hold of my Root: Broomrape (Orobanche)

This is a sort of opener for a series on telling similar plants apart, but I also wanted to say something about these remarkable flowers.

Orobanche gracilis - slender broomrape. Its host,the legume Dorycnium, is in the background

Orobanche gracilis – slender broomrape. Its host,the legume Dorycnium, is in the background

This was the first of these striking inflorescences I saw – pointed out to me by CL, who must be developing a botanist’s eye in order to be able to live with me. It’s Orobanche gracilis, slender broomrape, and like all plants in this genus it’s a parasite, living entirely on the water and nutrients of its host plant , which for this species can be any legume (Fabaceae family – anything resembling peas and beans).  The plants are distant relatives of snapdragons and toadflaxes, which you can see in the shape of the flower and the form of the inflorescence.

O. gracilis close up, showing the red markings

O. gracilis close up, showing the red markings

With  its distinctive red markings inside the flower, it’s beautiful in a rather weird way , partly due to the absence of green – the plant has no  chlorophyll at all – and partly because I can’t bring myself to like a plant that preys completely on something else. Its human equivalent must be the thief, the pimp, the drug dealer – I’ll come back to that.

A dry stem of broomrape - O. picridis or O. minor?

A dry stem of broomrape – O. picridis or O. minor?

Within a week or two, I’d found another broomrape, this time in the sand dunes, but all that remained was a dried flower stalk. I’ve since found another, very similar but equally dry, in the next village to mine. So, some detective work needed. I’ve narrowed  the main possibilities for these to two:  Orobanche minor, or O. picridis, since both were tall and slim, with small flowers, and near what looked like a Picris – a species of oxtongue with a small dandelion-like flower. They could be one of each – and O. minor is said to be found near the sea and also parasitises composites like Picris, as well as legumes.

This leads me to the difficulty of identifying broomrapes in general – they’re mostly in shades of yellow through to pink, most have a single spike of whitish flowers, and to make matters worse, most are variable in appearance depending on soil, location and host. But there is one main clue to note: they are usually pretty close to their host plant. This helped me identify the next broomrape I found, on the sauveplaine. There were a couple of small colonies, both next to, even growing through the leaves of their host plant, Eryngium campestre or field eryngo.

Orobanche amethystea just emerging

Orobanche amethystea just emerging

This is Orobanche amethystea, which parasitises a variety of plants, mostly umbellifers like Eryngium (members of the family now named Apiaceae).

O. amethystea growing through leaves of Eryngium

O. amethystea growing through leaves of Eryngium

Orobanche amethystea close up

Orobanche amethystea close up

What about the strange names for these blooms, with their echoes of violence? Broomrape comes from the Latin name for one species parasitic on broom – O. rapum-genistae – rapum (the Latin word for turnip) in this case signifying the root-swelling where the parasite has taken hold. Orobanche comes from orobus (vetch) and ancho (strangle).

I wondered how the life-cycle of Orobanche could work, given that it has to  find a host,  and that cross-pollination must be as rare as the plants. They often self-pollinate, and the flowering heads can each then produce  100,000 tiny seeds. These are the seeds from one of the dried plants – each seed is only a tenth of a millimetre across.

Orobanche and seeds

Orobanche and seeds

The seeds can lie dormant in the soil for years, until stimulated by chemicals from the roots of a living host plant (for more on the  social life of plants, see my post here).  The seed then germinates, sending a small rootlet towards its host root and boring in to the vascular tissue.  This creates a bulge or tuber on the root, from which the flower will eventually arise – after which the broomrape dies. While they are rare in Britain, and often protected, they are a significant problem for agriculture in other areas, principally dry regions such as North Africa and the Near East. Orobanche crenata parasitises broad beans, and it’s estimated that Egyptian farmers lose up to 40% of their crops to this predation. The tiny seeds are easily spread by animals and farm machinery, and the problems there, and in Morocco and Algeria, are increasing.  Farmers will have to pick the flowers before they set seed, and clean tractor tyres to contain the spread.

How to find the jazz in all that? Well, I’ve just been reading  So What, the superb biography of Miles Davis by John Szwed (who wrote the equally brilliant bio of Sun Ra, Space is the Place). Davis comes over as little more than a parasite in his relationships with non-musicians, especially with women.  And a thief and a pimp at times. He was so insecure, so dependent, so demanding, and without them he was cocaine-addled and dormant.  But there’s the life, and there’s the work, and my admiration for and love of the man’s music is undimmed by his portrayal.  Here’s something from just one of the revolutions Miles wrought in music, often, as here, with the help of his friend Gil Evans: the Birth of the Cool, and Moon Dreams.

Coming up next: They’re as alike as two peas – hang on, they are two peas

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