Tag Archives: Darwin

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.



Filed under Datura

Hey, Jasmine, come and meet Robert and Violet

Fied Bindweed - Convolvulus arvensis - busy doing what?

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

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’?



Filed under Cistus, Convolvulus, Datura, Himantoglossum, Orchis

Oral gratification: Lamium purpureum – red (or purple) deadnettle

Lamium purpureum - near

Lamium purpureum – near





Also known as purple archangel – though the name is usually used for the yellow-flowered  L. galeobdolon.  This powerful name came from the Latin archangelica, recorded as early as the 10th century, which also covered other Lamium species and was later applied to the plant now called Angelica, which everyone knows from the candied stalks. For the latter, it was said that an angel revealed its medicinal value against epidemic infectious diseases, but the origin of the other angelic names for deadnettles is lost in time – Grigson suggests that there may be a lost legend about an archangel relieving these plants of their sting in recognition of their healing properties.

Leaving supernatural revelations aside, we should still be truly grateful to the plants of the family to which deadnettles belong: the Lamiaceae, formerly Labiatae – both names because the flowers have upper and lower lips resembling a mouth. They’re a pleasure for the palate too, since they include many if not most of our aromatic herbs (thyme, oregano, marjoram, savory, mint, lavender, basil, lemon balm and sage), and many more of them can be used in salads, sauces or to make tisanes. The production of large quantities of aromatic oils is an adaptation which reduces water loss by evaporation, enabling these tender herbs to survive hot Mediterranean summers. Young leaves of red deadnettle can be used in a salad, especially for their colour I imagine, but their taste in cooking is apparently nothing to write home about.

I’ll come back later to the more aromatic plants in this family. I’ll just mention that they’re even more valuable to insects: red deadnettle can flower all winter in a mild climate – I took the pictures above last week –  and so it’s a useful source of both pollen and nectar for bees when there’s not much else available.

I’ve just found a stunning video which really relates to my last post and the orchid Anacamptis pyramidalis. I found it on the ARKive site – worth a look for wildlife videos, especially for schools. The film shows exactly what Darwin was writing about, as the moth collects nectar and can’t avoid getting pollen sacs glued to its proboscis, and then takes them to fertilise another flower.  More oral gratification for the moth – but I wonder how it gets the pollen sacs off again – must be worse than a bit of sellotape on your fingers. You can find the video by clicking here.

What else could I play now but ‘Lucky lips’, by Ruth Brown, from 1957.  Her energy and bounce were incredible, and she sold so many records for Atlantic that it became known as ‘the house that Ruth built’. If you watch her lips closely on the video, you’ll see that she’s singing another song, but hey, what do you want for free entertainment ?


Filed under Lamium, Uncategorized

The curious case of the de-potted orchid

The pyramidal orchid - Anacamptis pyramidalis

The pyramidal orchid – Anacamptis pyramidalis

A centenary approaches: on the morning of 8th February 1913 gardeners arrived at work at a large hothouse complex in London to find glass broken in three houses, orchids removed from their pots and the pots broken, and plant labels removed. ‘An attack on plants is as cowardly and cruel as one upon domestic animals or those in captivity’, snorted the Gardeners’ Magazine. Garden staff were helped in their investigations not only by the police, but by the perpetrators themselves: clues were some ‘feminine fingerprints’, a handkerchief, a bag, and an envelope bearing the inscription Votes for women ‘in an uneducated hand’. The Daily Express has always had a taste for a sober and reasoned headline, and on this occasion it read ‘Mad women raid Kew Gardens!’

In case anyone was in any doubt, the Raiders of the Bust Pot returned to Kew twelve days later and burned down the refreshment pavilion, strewing placards for women’s suffrage nearby.

The remains of the refreshment pavilion at Kew after the fire

The remains of the refreshment pavilion at Kew after the fire

This time the raiders were caught. The Morning Post reported the trial on 8th March:

At 3.15 next morning one of the night attendants noticed a bright light inside the pavillion and running towards the building he saw two people running away from it. He blew his whistle and did his best to extinguish the fire, which immediately broke out, but his efforts were unavailing. At this time two constables happened to be in the Kew-road, and after their attention had been attracted to the reflection of the fire in the sky, they saw two women running away from the direction of the pavillion. The constables gave chase, and just before they caught them each of the women who had separated was seen to throw away a portmanteau. At the station the women gave the names of Lilian Lenton – who was too ill to appear before the Magistrate on remand – and Joyce Lock, the accused, who later gave her correct name of Olive Wharry.

(From http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk)

Olive Wharry

Olive Wharry

 According to the Roger Fulford in his history Votes for Women:

A girl [sic – she was then 27], Olive Wharry, was arrested and brought before the local magistrates’ court. She threw a directory at the head of the chairman, Councillor Bisgood. Although she aimed from a distance of six feet, she fortunately missed her target.

Olive Wharry  was sentenced to eighteen months in prison.  The plan of her companion, Lilian Lenton. had been to burn two buildings a week in order to make Britain ungovernable – and a few depotted orchids can only have hastened that goal.

Lilian Lenton

Lilian Lenton

We do miss the daring and novel tactics of the suffrage movement – where is this energy these days?  Other acts in early 1913 listed by Roger Fulford include the action of a Miss Melford:

the daughter of a leading actor, perched…on the top deck of a motor-bus…from this vantage point she drove along Victoria Street, firing stones from a powerful catapult into the windows of the buildings passed by the bus.  The professionals at many of the golf courses around Birmingham were startled to find that some of their putting-greens had, during the night of January 30th been burned by acid with the slogan ‘Votes for Women’..

And what were the results of this bold and imaginative campaign?  Ray Desmond’s Kew: a history of the Royal Botanic Gardens goes straight to the core issue, but is phlegmatic : ‘The destruction of the Pavilion was no great loss. It had been crudely fabricated ….’

Were Kew – and golf courses for that matter – plucked out of the air as targets? Or chosen solely for maximum public impact?  Not only for those reasons  – Kew also had ‘form’ as far as women were concerned. Here, from Desmond’s history of  Kew, are the views of Sir Joseph Hooker, the former Director of Kew, as reported in a letter in 1902:

At one time some women (not ladies in any sense of the word) gardeners were employed at Kew but there are none now.  Sir Joseph says he could not possibly recommend any lady to go there. She would have to work with the labouring men, doing all they have to do, digging, manuring, and all the other disagreeable parts of gardening.  Then there is the work in the hothouses; the men, I believe, work simply in their trousers, and how could a lady work with them.

Two women gardeners at Kew, 1898

Two women gardeners at Kew, 1898 (the ones without moustaches)

As I’ve mentioned in another post (here), the cultivation of orchids was also a particularly male obsession, and one to which well-off gentlemen devoted much more time and resources  than to getting a women’s suffrage bill passed by Parliament.  If you want to get a man’s attention (if not his goodwill), kick him in the orchids –  that’ll teach him to garden in his trousers.

Today’s plant is of course an orchid: Anacamptis pyramidalis. It’s maybe the most common orchid round my way, so it wouldn’t have excited much attention from the gentlemen orchid collectors. I see it often in grassy roadside verges, sometimes in quite large groups.

‘We now come to Orchis pyramidalis, one of the most highly organised species which I have examined’ wrote Charles Darwin in his On the various contrivances by which British and foreign orchids are fe rtilised by insects (1862, available at Darwin online here).  He noticed that the flowers were so  successful at attaching their pollen sacs to the proboscis of visiting moths that some of these were so encumbered they must have found it hard to feed.

Head and proboscis of Acontia luctuosa with seven pair of the pollinia of Orchis pyramidalis attached to the proboscis

Head and proboscis of Acontia luctuosa with seven pair of the pollinia of Orchis pyramidalis attached to the proboscis

Let’s update the daring woman theme. Betty Carter was one of the most independent of all jazz singers – she not only created her own style and led her own trios, but founded her own record company, BetCar.  I’ve always liked this song, from the album of the same name: ‘Droppin’ things’.  It brings back the images of the broken pots, and just when you think she’s playing the dizzy woman lost in love, she sings the lines: ‘now the table’s turned, he knows not to fool around…’



Filed under Anacamptis

New flower, and new kit: Reseda phyteuma (Corn mignonette)

Inflorescence of Reseda phyteuma

Inflorescence of Reseda phyteuma

I go out these days not expecting to see much in the way of flowers – but keen to see something because I have new kit to try out.  Chaiselongue and I decided, in the traditional spirit of seasonal extravagance and instant gratification, to exchange presents early, which for me means I now have her  Pentax K7 with a spanking new 100mm macro lens. If your main subject is flowers, this is not the most exciting time of year. So I wander in the vines with a mixture of hope and resignation, and when I see something I haven’t seen before I’m more excited and grateful than usual.  And this little flower is now my new best friend.

R.phyteuma in vineyard

R.phyteuma in vineyard

Reseda phyteuma (Corn mignonette, in an English which seems more like Franglais) is a small plant, usually only 10-30cm tall, which likes sandy and dry ground. I found this in a vineyard which is on a flood plain of a small river, so the soil is sand and gravel. In French mignon means pretty, or cute, and I guess the frilly petals fit that description.  Other distinguishing features: the six sepals look like small leaves, and the stamens seem out of scale for the small flower; they bear pink or orange anthers. It is supposed to flower from April to September – this one has lost its calendar.

I haven’t used the macro that much yet, but I do find the 100mm lens means I can get pictures which look close, without having to lie on the ground with my nose in the leaves.  And joy of joys, I can focus on what I want however slender or small, without the camera deciding that what I really need is a clear photo of the earth behind it.  I’m still finding out what it can do, but it’s making me interested in investigating leaves, so expect more of this sort of thing:

Leaves of Geranium in the garden

Leaves of Geranium in the garden

Et maintenant, c’est mignon, c’est chouette, c’est Thurston Harris et  Little bitty pretty one, de 1957.

Coming up next: trees with balls.

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Flower as star: Calendula arvensis (field marigold), and Kew Gardens

Calendula arvensis in the vines

Calendula arvensis in the vines

This little flower has reappeared in the last month or so, an irrepressibly cheerful sight this dark time of year.  It’s a composite flower of the Asteraceae family – so named for their similarity in form to stars – the outer female florets sporting a long strap petal, and the inner male florets being simple tubes. The colours range from yellow into orange, emphasising the individuality of each one. It’s an annual which is supposed to flower all year round – hence its Latin name, from the Roman Calendae, the first day of each month –  but here it seems to die back in the summer heat. It’s an annual, having to regerminate from seed, which is easier in the autumn rains. It’s also a rapid coloniser of cultivated, ploughed land so it often appears here at the edges of vineyards.  The scientific name is probably more familiar than those of most plant genera because of its healing properties, although most products seem to be made from the cultivated marigold, Calendula officinalis. It’s anti-everything: antifungal, antiseptic, anti-inflammatory etc. Why ‘marigold’? Because as a healing plant brought from the Mediterranean to northern Europe in the Middle Ages it was named in honour of the Virgin Mary, to distinguish it from other, non-therapeutic ‘golds’ such as chrysanthemums.

Calendula growing thickly

Calendula growing thickly


Its name in French is Souci des champs, souci  usually meaning a worry or concern.  That doesn’t seem the right name for something pretty, long-flowering and healthy, and in fact it is the wrong interpretation: souci in this context comes via old French soulsie from the Latin sol sequia, meaning sun follower, because the flowers open in sunlight.

Flowers are the stars in front of the camera in the recent David Attenborough series, Kingdom of Plants, which was shown on Sky I believe – I was lucky enough to be given the DVDs and some kind of report on them is well overdue. As you may know, the series was made over the period of a year in Kew Gardens: here’s the man himself introducing it:

In the films, the flowers really take the starring roles: there is exquisite time-lapse footage of petals of every shade and size unfolding, the largest being the Titan arum (Amorphophallus titanum), a flower seven feet tall:

The strong points of the series for me were the photography, and Attenborough’s awareness of the interdependence of the whole natural world:  bats needing nectar, flowers needing to be pollinated, fungi exchanging nutrients with green plants, and so on. But I can’t help being in two minds about the films, as I am about Kew itself.  I haven’t got a TV so I was the more taken aback by the relentless search for an exciting visual, and hence the focus on flowering rather than any other plant process. And the ‘making of’ feature brought home to me how in some ways the sheer tonnage of high-tech equipment deployed began to dictate the film: if something could be done, with an expensive gadget (3D cameras, booms, robot helicopter cameras) for the first time ever, then it HAD to be done.

I only have a vague memory of going once to Kew with my parents: I just recall a lot of rhododendrons. In the films Kew itself is ever-present, constantly lauded and never questioned, given a respect that even deities don’t enjoy these days. It is a fascinating place, but it fills me with very mixed emotions. On the one hand I agree with the superlatives: it does have over 40,000 plants actually growing there, while I think I’ll be lucky to see half the 2,000 or so species growing near my home – present count is only about 120.

On the other hand: maybe it’s a kink in my personality, but I always want to puncture inflated reputations, deserved or not. Kew Gardens have undergone several metamorphoses since their origins around 1720 as private pleasure gardens for the royalty whom Britain imported from Hanover after the Act of Settlement, and with whom the country is still saddled. Kew is still a ‘Royal Botanic Garden’. As with many botanic gardens, it served initially as an ego-project, each prince and king in Europe vying to have the greatest number and the most exotic species. The cost of botany was high and many plant collectors died: Captain Cook’s 1768-71 Pacific voyage in the Endeavour cost the lives of 38 crew members, and Joseph Banks, the botanist (and later Kew adviser) who went with him, lost five of his eight staff while amassing 3,600 dried plants.

Kew began serious collection of plants targeted for the needs of the British Empire in the 19th century, transporting from one continent to another tea, rubber and many other plants – for the benefit of the colonial planters.  We forget what the lifestyles of the Victorian upper classes were like. For example, in 1868 Charles Darwin and his family went to the Isle of Wight on holiday, renting a cottage from the photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, for whom he sat for a portrait.

Charles Darwin photographed by Julia Margaret Cameron, 1868

Charles Darwin photographed by Julia Margaret Cameron, 1868

Her family lived solely from the proceeds of their coffee plantations in Ceylon. While coffee had originally been brought there by the Dutch (who had stolen plants from Mocha in Yemen), it was Kew who stepped in with Liberian varieties in 1873 when a quarter of Ceylon’s plantations were wiped out by disease. Darwin’s own private income came mostly from his tenant farmers and railway shares.

I’m realising that the history of Kew is too full and too interesting to cover here, including as it does much of the history of botany itself, so I’ll come back later to these and other themes, including a bizarre minor skirmish in the battle of the sexes. The reinvention of Kew in the last century has been as a scientific institution – although that’s not obvious from its website (here), which presents it as a jolly public attraction. But I’ll give credit where it’s due: the scientific work behind the scenes is invaluable, and is mentioned in the Kingdom of Plants. I’ll mention just two projects: the first is the use of its vast herbarium, which includes over 8 million specimens and covers 90% of all known plant species, to compile an internationally accepted list of named plants.  The results are online at theplantlist.org (click to go there) and are available and indispensable to people like me, as well as to professionals.

The second is the Millennium Seed Bank, an effort to conserve indefinitely supplies of seeds from all over the world to protect against extinction and catastrophe – here’s the Kew video about it:

The last words are from David Attenborough:

The truth is: the natural world is changing. And we are totally dependent on that world. It provides our food, water and air. It is the most precious thing we have and we need to defend it.

I thought I’d celebrate the flower as star with two stars of the music scene in France: the New Orleans-born Sidney Bechet wrote and recorded the tune Petite Fleur in France sixty years ago, in 1952.  You’d like to hear it sung in French? Pas de souci – seven years later the singer and guitarist Henri Salvador, born in French Guiana, recorded a popular version, with French lyrics by Fernand Bonifay, and here it is:

Because it’s winter and this post is about a garden, here’s a song Salvador recorded on one of his last albums, Chambre Avec Vue (2001), when he was 84. But this time it’s sung by Stacey Kent: Jardin d’hiver.

Coming up soon: Trying out a new camera, and seasonal colour.



Filed under Calendula

El Jardí Botànic: the Botanic Garden of the University of Valencia

I’ve been on my holidays, which is why I haven’t posted for a while. We didn’t spend all our time at the Valencia Botanic Garden, though I feel I could easily have done so – with, of course, evening sorties for tapas, which were wonderful in the city. So here are a few recollections of a very enjoyable morning in a place I quickly came to like very much.


Plan of  Jardi Botanic, Valencia

It’s a very small garden – just a city block – only a little way outside the old city walls and an easy walk from the centre, and this adds to its charm.  It calls itself  ‘The oasis in the city’ and it is exactly that, a place dedicated to nature, growth and greenery in a packed and bustling urban environment –  you look up from a bed of cacti and over some palm trees


Cacti, the ‘firework’ palm, and flats

you see the blocks of flats which encircle the garden.  It’s also very accessible for the valencianos: admission only 2€, and retired people can get a year’s pass for 16€, which may explain why it seemed very popular with grandparents and youngsters. To encourage a wide range of visitors it hosts some unexpected events – I loved the idea of the series of concerts there this year with different jazz groups each paired with a sustainable energy theme (2012 is the UN Year of Sustainable Energy For All: more here if like me you’ve missed it).  On 20th October it will be ‘biomass’, and musicians Miquel Casany and Arturo Serra – no video but you can sample the music here). More about this and all else at the Garden on their interesting website here (mostly in English).

Anyway, on to the plants. The main entrance is through the research building, opened in 2000, which must have been built around the huge hackberry tree, over 70 years old, which dominates the central round courtyard.  The hackberry was traditionally used in the Valencian area to make rural tools, so one is immediately reminded of a sustainable resource in a vanishing way of life.

In the garden wide gravel walks separate formal beds which are each devoted to a botanical theme and well labelled. The highlights for me were the buildings in the centre of the garden: the four small greenhouses each on a single subject, the tropical greenhouse, and the shade house.  One small greenhouse was devoted to carnivorous plants,


among them pitcher plants and Darwin’s favourite, Drosera (sundew) – ‘ I care more just now for Drosera than the origin of any species in the world’ he says in Ruth Padel’s poem The extra eye.* Other subjects are ferns, orchids and bromeliads.


Below: Drosera capensis (S. Africa)



Above: Nepenthes hookeriam  (after Darwin’s great friend Joseph Hooker)




The tropical greenhouse was built originally in 1861 and was the first of its kind in Spain. Basque industrialists created the great iron framework and Galician


Entrance to the tropical greenhouse framing CL

 craftsmen installed the 465 square metres of glass.  It may have seemed huge then, but now I had the feeling I get when I’m poking around in a second-hand shop: the pleasure of discovering things I hadn’t seen before, such as a coffee plant, during a gentle shuffle along and back.


Coffea arabica in the greenhouse

The architecturally impressive shade house contains plants that are used to a forest canopy rather than the strong blast of Valencia’s summer sun.


The shade house facade

In the rest of the garden I was thrilled to see a huge Ginkgo biloba, maybe the world’s oldest broadleaf tree species, a great variety of Euphorbias (a genus in a family that’s beginning to fascinate me), and in a lovely rock garden devoted to endemic plants a wide range of toadflaxes and antirrhinums. I was reminded of the Botanic Garden of Wales, which has a walled garden (dedicated to Alfred Russell Wallace)  whose planted beds, shaped in a pattern like the DNA double helix, show variation within species and genera.






Linaria repens                                                                                                                 L. cavanillesii -a very local species




On a small table on the way out is a selection of plants in pots for the gardener who has almost everything: you can buy a tiny baobab tree, or some sugar cane.  Writing about our visit now, I’m still thinking, ‘lucky Valencians’.

* Ruth Padel, Darwin – A Life in Poems,  Vintage, 2010

I couldn’t find a video of  Miquel Casany and  Arturo Serra, but to give you a glimpse of what we might be missing on 20th October, here’s Serra on vibes playing in Nerja, in Andalucia, last year – be patient with some wonky camerawork at the start for a lovely solo, very much in the reflective mood of the Botanic Garden .



Filed under Linaria, Valencia

The Toadflax Saga – episode two

In tonight’s episode: a long-lost cousin turns up, Lin gets called a monster by a Swede, Charles reverts to type, and alternative views of life battle for the Gould medal.

(If that’s all too much, skip to the end for a film on the dangers of wearing a large cardboard saxophone in public)


Before diving into the tangled story of Linaria again, here’s the cousin: a similar plant which has also been reclassified by botanists. It’s Misopates orontium, known in English not very flatteringly as Weasel’s Snout, also as Lesser Snapdragon – which is not a surprise because it used to be in the Antirrhinum (snapdragon) genus. These family and name changes remind me of soap-opera storylines: I can imagine the reclassified species crying:  ‘But I just don’t know who I am anymore!’

 Linaria and the snapdragons have had cameo roles to play in the long-running story of evolution (Beast-enders? Sorry). It all started with the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus  (1707-78, above), Professor of Medicine at Uppsala University, and perhaps  the most important biologist  of the 18th century.  In a colossal labour he brought together all that was known about plants in the whole world till that point, and if that wasn’t enough he included all animals as well in his great monument, the binomial system of names for all living things (i.e. genus  and species ).

In 1742 a botanical student named Liöberg  found, growing on an island near Stockholm, a plant whose flowers resembled those of Linaria vulgaris but which instead of being symmetrical either side of a vertical plane (known as zygomorphic), were radially symmetrical (or actinomorphic), having five equal petals and five spurs.  Here is a photo of a modern version, from a blog which tells this story too – well  worth a look here.


Eventually this conundrum came the way of Linnaeus, who was most discomfited by the discovery, since he believed strongly that all species were created separately by God and hence could not change.  He assumed it must be a hybrid with an unknown plant and in 1744 called the plant Peloria – the Greek for ‘monster’. The example was discussed by Charles Darwin over a century later, when he had  studied the snapdragon (Antirrhinum majus) in detail : the members of this similar genus also hybridise easily and show occasional radial symmetry. Darwin showed that peloric flowers were not hybrids but bred true, and published his findings in 1868 in The variation of plants and animals under domestication .  He regarded it as a possible reversion to a previous evolutionary stage, describing it as:

… an actual, though partial, return to the structure of the ancient progenitor of the group. If this view be correct, we must believe that a vast number of characters, capable of evolution, lie hidden in every organic being. But it would be a mistake to suppose that the number is equally great in all beings. We know, for instance, that plants of many orders occasionally become peloric; but many more cases have been observed in the Labiatæ and Scrophulariaceæ than in any other order; and in one genus of the Scrophulariaceæ, namely Linaria, no less than thirteen species have been described in a peloric condition.  On this view of the nature of peloric flowers, and bearing in mind what has been said with respect to certain monstrosities in the animal kingdom, we must conclude that the progenitors of most plants and animals, though widely different in structure, have left an impression capable of redevelopment on the germs of their descendants.

(The variation of plants and animals under domestication [1868] , Ch. 13, available here)

Later still, when the science of genetics had developed, it was assumed that the ‘monster’ of radial symmetry or ‘pelorism’ was due to the mutation of a gene.  Recently it has been shown that in fact vertically symmetrical (zygomorphic) and peloric flowers have the same genes, and the difference is in how they are controlled by ‘an extensive, heritable methylation of the gene’( more detail here).

This is the sort of half-chance that can be seized on by anyone with an anti-Darwin axe to grind.  For example, by Googling Linaria and evolution I came across a website apparently about Darwin, and on it a blog post for April 3rd 2011 (here),  in which the author recounts the Peloria story but concludes that since the genes are the same in peloric and non-peloric plants there is no mutation and hence ‘the foundational evidence for evolution is a legacy of facade and outright fraud.’ Despite the author’s  having a biological degree, this seems to be because he has confused the fact that one gene is identical in the two plants, with the idea that the whole DNA of the two forms is identical – well, that combined with misunderstanding of how science develops and some wilful bias. He concludes that: ‘The Linaria story highlights why evolution, while once a theory in crisis during the twentieth century, is now in crisis without a theory’.

Though in the story he tells he makes it clear he is nostalgic for the days of Linnaeus’s religious beliefs, the name of the site, the nature of the posts, and his account of himself appear scientific and do not mention a religious view. In his section about himself the author writes that his site:

….  presents the history of evolution with a time-line of discoveries, people, and ideas. With over a century of unprecedented biological research since the publication of The Origin of Species, now is the time to reflect on the scientific evidence of evolution. This blog is a forum for focusing on one of today’s hottest and contentious topics – evolution.

I can imagine a school student looking for essay material helping  themselves to a lot of this – I was a psychology lecturer and I know all about cut-and-paste essays.  The concealment of  the real purpose of  blogs like this seems to me to be both deliberate and  dishonest:  hoping to attract students and steer them towards unfounded opinions and wilful misinterpretations which masquerade as scientific evidence written by a scientist.

This author is not the only one – his ‘Reference Library’ gives a list of people who have published religious tracts dressed up as respectable science – I have come across some  before, for example a man who has put biology videos on Youtube which don’t mention his real agenda.

All this subterfuge is not accidental.  A couple of posts ago I mentioned Stephen Jay Gould and his unwavering campaign, together  with the American Civil Liberties Union, against the teaching of creationism in schools. Promoters of the literal truth of Genesis used to have American law on their side:  all teaching of evolution in schools was banned till as recently as 1968, when the proscription was overturned.  However, even then, as Gould notes in this article,  biology textbook publishers continued to cater for the religious market by not mentioning evolution in books aimed at schools – so that he himself, one of the theory’s most eloquent exponents, could not study it until he went to college.  From that point the only channel left open to creationists was to present their ideas as ‘science’ and to demand time on the science curriculum – a strategy tried in Arkansas and defeated in court in 1981 with the aid of Gould on the witness stand.  The battle is far from over and clearly this strategy of deception is still the path of a many producers of professional-looking internet resources.

I leave the last words to Gould:

The argument that the literal story of Genesis can qualify as science collapses on three major grounds: the creationists’ need to invoke miracles in order to compress the events of the earth’s history into the biblical span of a few thousand years; their unwillingness to abandon claims clearly disproved, including the assertion that all fossils are products of Noah’s flood; and their reliance upon distortion, misquote, half-quote, and citation out of context to characterize the ideas of their opponents. [Stephen Jay Gould, “The Verdict on Creationism”, The Skeptical Inquirer, Winter 87/88, pg. 186]

Now, that saxophone: I was overjoyed to find that the cleverly named Polish band Pink Freud have released a video which just seems made for this blog post:

Coming up next: a lovely flower, a short write-up, and a perfect song.



Filed under Linaria, Misopates

The Blues: Campanula rapunculus – Rampion bell-flower

I hope you like the new header, which I think better illustrates the blog title.

Campanula of course means a lttle bell, but the other part of the name is more interesting, because the Brothers Grimm may have taken the name Rapunzel from this plant, for their tale of a maiden locked in a tower. In French, it’s raiponce and in Occitan reponchon (it’s among five other plants which are often called this), both from the Latin rapa or rapum (turnip) which signifies any edible root.  Geoffrey Grigson says that ‘In the 16th century Rampion was commonly known as rapunculum, quasi parvum rapum,  ‘as if a little turnip’, and it was identified with the wild turnip of Dioscorides.’

The Campanulas generally were often cultivated in the potager in France for their roots, and the leaves were used in salads.  According to Richard Mabey, the wild Rampion, a biennial,  was used in the same way, which has now made the plant very rare in Britain, so it doesn’t seem to have been widely cultivated there. He says that the fleshy parsnip-like roots were chopped, boiled, and served with vinegar  (rather like15th century soggy chips, I suppose).  I’m just thinking that ‘Parsnip, Parsnip, let down your hair’ doesn’t sound so good.

I found this flower hard to identify because there are so many similar species which differ in the degree of branching of the stem (this is branched, C. rapunculoides  and persicifolia are not), the exact size and orientation of the flower and the size of the sepals. There are at least 500 species of Campanula. It is difficult to imagine how a botanist can see such variety and not think of how small variations can accumulate to result in new species – an illustration of Darwin’s gradualist model of evolution.  Nowadays we know that climate changes, catastophes such as meteor strikes and changes in other flora and fauna can produce rapid and striking evolutionary change with many entirely new species arising (known as radiation): this is Stephen Jay Gould’s theory of punctuated equilibrium, to which I’ll no doubt return.  But for now, the varieties of the Campanulas are a reminder to me of Darwin.

Now for a earful of blues. I thought it was about time I found something more obviously based on the blues chord changes, and this fits the bill.  It’s.the Thelonious Monk Quartet and Blue Monk, for no other real reason that I like it and a friend recently reminded me of it (what he really said was, ‘you know that Monk tune that goes Dah dee di dah, dah dee di dah?’).

Next, we interrupt this series to bring you another series: Any list will get boring if it goes on too long, so I’m going to mix it up with a few posts on early naturalists and jazz bass players: the bassics of botany.  I’m starting with Asclepius – OK he’s a god, and neither a botanist or a bassist, but anyway…..


Filed under Campanula

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