Tag Archives: coevolution

Born to be spiny: Silybum marianum (milk thistle) and Dipsacus fullonum (teazel)

This picture of the flowering heads of Silybum marianum was taken  on 25th May , but I’ve been saving it for this post about spiky plants. It’s so over-the-top pointy that I can’t see it without thinking of the imagery of hard rock bands, and the Steppenwolf song:

Get your motor running

Head out on the highway

Looking for adventure

and whatever comes our way….

I like smoke and lightning

Heavy metal thunder (Born to be wild, 1968)

The  song describes almost perfectly my trips out to photograph plants: few people know that the title is completely botanical and that the original version of the lyrics had ‘wild flowers’ in place of ‘adventure’, and the thunder referred to the rattle of the vasculum in the car boot…..*


I quote this because it is supposed to be the first use of the phrase ‘heavy metal’ in a song (William Burroughs had already created the character the Heavy Metal Kid in The naked lunch) .  Also because the spines in both the plants in  today’s post look quite aggressive, though in fact I think they are both purely defensive.

Both plants in today’s post are biennials,  growing  a basal rosette of leaves in their first year, then shooting up a spiky stem topped off by these flowers with attitude, which seem to snarl ‘what are you looking at?’  It seems to me that these are all superb adaptations to life in the time of grasses: as the Earth’s climate became cooler and drier in the last 50 million years, grasses evolved and spread rapidly in the expanding deserts and steppes which were hostile to trees and tropical plants. As grasses spread, so mammals evolved which adopted grazing as a habit, including the ungulates. Grasses are well adapted to this because they regrow after grazing (like a mown lawn), and other plants developed ways of avoiding being eaten: ground-level leaf rosettes, and spiky shoots which deter hungry deer and goats – animals which incidentally help both these sorts of plants by eating all the competition instead.

The marianum bit of the name is associated with the milk in milk thistle, coming from the white veins in the leaves: the  legend was that these came  from splashes of milk from Mary’s breast as she fed the infant Jesus*.  Hence the plant was held to increase the flow of milk in nursing mothers.  It was also thought to be useful medically, especially for liver problems, and these perhaps explain why the plant spread from its origin in the middle east (Iran), as it was systematically cultivated in monastery gardens. While the  benefits are not clinically proven, extracts are used in the energy drink Rockstar69.  Ironically this drink is not advised for pregnant women or nursing mothers.

The teazel (Dipsacus fullonum) will be very familiar to more northern born-to-be-wild ones too – I’m featuring it today because this weekend would have seen my mother’s 99th birthday, and I remember her hanging bunches of teazels in the garage to use in her wonderful dried flower arrangements.  The flowers are unique in that they start flowering in the middle, and a wave of bloom spreads from the equator to both poles. There are amazing high-magnification photos here.

The leaves clasp the stems and collect water in their axils (the Dips- bit of the name means ‘thirst’: cf. dipsomaniac).  This feature deters bugs from climbing, and bugs drowned in these watery traps seem to aid setting of seed, so the teazel may be partly carnivorous.

In West Wales we were used to the history of teazels having  been collected from the many stream-sides for use in the woollen mills: the many soft spines of the flower heads were perfect for raising the nap on woollen fabrics, so making them ‘woollier’.   I’ve seen them packed in a frame on the machine called a ‘teazel raising gig’ at the wonderful  National Wool Museum at Drefach Felindre (meaning’ little mill town’ – and it is).

*If you believe this, you’ll believe anything.

In music I’m exploring the idea that the leather-and-spikes posture of heavy rock is just that: a posture.  In fact though jazz and metal have seemed mutually exclusive categories there are plenty of meeting points. Flirtings maybe, not like the 80s heyday of jazz-rock fusion, but as fun as most flirting can be.  Names to conjure with could be Billy Cobham, Tony Williams and Lifetime, and of course Hendrix himself, who jammed with Miles Davis and John McLaughlin. I’m going to suggest a listen to guitarist  Vernon Reid (formerly with Living Colour) playing a Thelonious Monk tune, Brilliant corners. First Monk’s original:

Now Vernon Reid with Masque:

And finally to wind down here are the two Mexican ex-metal guitarists Rodrigo and Gabriela with Alex Skolnick (guitarist with rock band Testament and dabbler in jazz with his trio) live at the Trianon, Paris.  Can’t genre-bending be fun?



Filed under Dipsacus, Silybum

Orchis purpurea – Lady orchid

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:

Coming up soon: Cutlasses and communism.


Filed under Orchis