Tag Archives: Montpellier

Peaceful coexistence: Cistus monspeliensis– narrow-leaved rockrose. (And the biologist Steven Rose)

Peaceful coexistence* has been in short supply in a week which has seen protests against an anti-Islamic film no-one has watched reach murderous heights, and the continuing civil war in Syria. No,  I haven’t decided to make this a political blog – just that the theme of coexistence seemed to emerge from the content that I’d planned.

Firstly, the plant: Cistus monspeliensis. Like most of the many species in the Cistus genus, this is a low shrub mostly seen in the borderlands between the Mediterranean plain and the mountains, in the dry garrigue and the sauveplaine (wooded plateau).  The petals of the flowers look like crumpled tissue paper, and only last one day. This species, first described near Montpellier, is one of the smallest and lowest, and is distinguished by the long narrow leaves which give it its name.

The name Cistus comes from the same root as chest, meaning that the seed capsule is like a little box (not very like, in my opinion). Rose originally meant any beautiful flower, not necessarily like a member of the Rosa genus. So you have Corn Rose (=poppy) and Rose of Sharon (= a Hypericum species from Sharon in Israel). Keeping this connection to the Middle East, species of Cistus were among the first plants brought back from the Eastern Mediterranean to Western Europe in the 17th century by the early plant collectors (such as Pierre Belon), including C. creticus, which produces a fragrant gum called ladanum, one of the components of myrrh. I’ll come back to this topic with other rockrose species.

The production of gum or oil is just one of the clever adaptations of this species to very dry rocky hillsides. Many species develop associations between their roots and a truffle fungus of the Tuber family. This is mutually beneficial: the fungus gets the nutrients produced by the plant, and the plant benefits from the wide-ranging fungal threads and their ability to extract minerals from very poor soil. The fungus also produces a toxin which inhibits other plants from germinating, giving the Cistus a clear field.

One oddity of Cistus is that its seeds are very water-resistant, and so can’t absorb water to germinate unless they have been first cracked open by heat, usually from a wild fire. Thus after a fire when all else has been frazzled and cleared, the seedlings again have a clear field. In fact Cistus is so successful that the white-flowered species are often parasitised by another plant, Cytinus hypocistus, which lacks chlorophyll.

I’m also using the rose connection to present some of the ideas of a biologist I very much admire, Steven Rose, Open University Professor of Biology and Neurobiology.  He has been a longstanding opponent of the use of genetics as a simple explanation, for example in psychology, and was a co-writer of the radical book Not in our genes (1984). Why is he – a biochemist researching memory –  in a botany blog? Because I think that, like Stephen Jay Gould (a friend and colleague of Rose’s), he explains evolution and how all living things grow in a more convincing way than most (there’s a video of Gould doing that here). I wish that I’d been taught by Rose (born 1938) when I went to university to study physiology in 1970, since he answers many of the objections I felt then to reductionist science.

In his book Lifelines (1997) – which I recommend strongly –   he outlines his approach of seeing every organism, plant and animal, as having an evolutionary and developmental history – a lifeline – without which its present biology cannot be understood. He quotes the geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky: ‘Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution’. He views the genes as only part of the inherited DNA (a view amply borne out recently by the Encode project), and achieving expression only in cooperation with the biochemistry of the cell – and beyond that, with the wider environment. His analogy is that the DNA may be the sheet music, but the cell contains the orchestra which must interpret it. This puts him on a collision course with those he calls ‘ultra Darwinists’ such as Richard Dawkins (author of The Selfish Gene, among other titles), who view the gene as paramount, as if it were a CD and the body merely a machine for playing and copying it, like a CD player. This emerges in a video I found (here) of the two of them debating on a balcony poised high above Tate Modern’s turbine hall.


I watched, anxious that one might become so angry he would push the other off – particularly because in Lifelines Rose uses the metaphor of a cliff to describe reductionism (the idea that biology can be reduced to biochemistry, that to chemistry, and then that to physics) and imagines that Dawkins has wandered off this cliff.   Luckily Rose doesn’t try to demonstrate to Dawkins the literal truth of this image, and in fact what we get is peaceful coexistence between scientists.

To conclude by returning to the political dimension: Rose was brought up in a Jewish family, but says he became an atheist at the age of 8. He has interpreted the application of Marxist ideas to biology, and came to controversial prominence recently by calling for an academic boycott of Israel, arguing that Israeli universities discriminated against Israeli Palestinians and collaborated with the Israeli Army.

* The phrase was coined by Khruschev, the leader of the USSR after Stalin, during a visit to Britain in 1956.  He said: ‘You do not like Communism.   We do not like capitalism.   There is only one way out – peaceful co-existence’. This was before the Cuban crisis – probably not the first example of the gap between words and deeds of politicians.

The music: I thought longer and harder about this than usual. I’ve decided on a track from the remarkable album Blue Camel, by the oud player Rabih Abou-Khalil. He was born and brought up in Beirut, then went to Germany and now lives in France. The musicians on the album include the Anglo-Canadian Kenny Wheeler on trumpet, Americans Charlie Mariano on sax and Steve Swallow on bass, and Puerto Rican Milton Cardona on congas, among others. It’s a really successful fusion, all players in touch with both their reflective and swinging sides: musical coexistence. I recommend the whole album, but here’s one of the more upbeat, jazzier numbers, Tsarka.


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Botanist goes to a Theatre

Some days there are just too many coincidences. Over breakfast I heard on the radio that the last surviving founder member of 50s vocal group the Platters, Herb Reed (and what a suitable name for this blog), had died in Boston. I like their records, and their successes with smooth ballads paved the way for many other American black artists to break through to the mainstream.

Les Platters et Herb Reed (à gauche) resteront un groupe de légende.

The Platters – Herb Reed is on the extreme left.

But I had been reading and thinking about very different Platters: the half-brothers Felix (1536-1614) and Thomas Platter (1574-1628) who had both studied medicine in Montpellier and then practised in their home city of Basle in Switzerland.  Felix particularly, since he made some original contributions to botany in assembling an early herbarium – a collection of plants carefully identified and pressed and dried between paper.  This was one of the first in Europe outside Italy, and he may have laerned the technique from the Italian Luca Ghini, via Felix’s teacher Rondelet in Montpellier. Felix’s herbarium, containing 813 species from several countries, is still on display in the University of Bern.

Both of the 16th century Platter bothers wrote journals which were later published and are available in English: Felix produced Beloved son Felix, and Thomas Journal of a younger brother. If you search, I think both are available online but seem hard to find in print.

Then I was again reminded of them by an item in the Guardian here about the discovery in Shoreditch in east London of the Curtain theatre, which had been home to Shakespeare’s company from about 1597 to 1600, just before the Globe was opened on the South Bank.  I wondered if it was perhaps there that the Platter brothers had visited in 1599 as part of a sort of Grand Tour, or for Thomas perhaps a year off after finishing medical studies.  This is how he describes it :

On September 21st after lunch, about two o’clock, I and my party crossed the water, and there in the house with the thatched roof witnessed an excellent performance of the tragedy of the first Emperor Julius Caesar with a cast of some fifteen people; when the play was over, they danced very marvellously and gracefully together as is their wont, two dressed as men and two as women.

 [Click on image to enlarge]

This is one of the main sources for dating Shakespeare’s play. More from the Journal here.

Now for some music – predictable I’m sure, but the Platters song which seemed most relevant to a Caesar: The Great Pretender.

Next:  Maybe some blues, maybe another colour, maybe something sparked by a news headline: exciting stuff, botany, eh?


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The Blues: Aphyllanthes monspeliensis

A curious plant because it is virtually leafless (Aphyllanthes means a plant without leaves)– the leaves are reduced to brown scales wrapping the base of the stems, presumably a chance mutation which gave an advantage in reducing water loss from leaf surface area.  Maybe a relatively recent evolution: this is a genus with only one species – there are no close relatives.

The stems grow in tufts from a mass of swollen fibrous roots, which are sometimes fed to sheep and goats and are supposed to give a fine taste to the resulting cheese – certainly the goat’s cheeses we buy from the farm in the hills where this plant grows abundantly are the best we’ve tasted inFrance.

In French, Aphyllanthe de Montpellier. In Occitan lo blavet (little blue), lo bragalon (little trousers – from the stems?), la dragona (from word for a drumstick or sword?). There is no equivalent English name, since this is a plant of the Midi – see the tela botanica map (green = present).

Now the story I want to tell about this plant is a long one with several digressions – you may want to skip to the end and some  of my favourite jazz , but you’d miss the history of a long friendship, more on the central role of Montpellier in botany, and my republican canard  in response to the British royal jubilee excess: the story of a kinky monarch and an assassination.

First, the friendship: Aphyllanthes monspeliensis was first described by two botanists, Pierre Pena and Mathias de Lobel in their Stirpium Adversaria Nova, published in London in 1571.  This was a pioneering work which described 1,500 species with great precision and full details of the locations where each plant had been found – a real advance at the time, and one of the foundations of scientific botany. Because both men had studied medicine in Montpellier and collected plants near there and in Provence this book also gave the largest place to the Midi of any 16th century botanical text.

Mathias de Lobel (1538-1616) was Flemish, born in Lille, and met Pierre Pena when both enrolled as medical students under Guillaume Rondelet in the University of Montpellier in spring 1565.  I can’t give Pena’s dates because, as one French source says,  ‘A strange mystery covers the destiny of Pierre Pena’. It is known however that he was born in Jonques, near Aix en Provence.  His brother, a mathematician and secret  astrologer, advised him from his star charts to give up a career in the army to study, and Pierre went to Parisand then began plant-collecting trips. It is possible that he first met  Lobel on one such trip to Italy– both were in Venice at the same time.  Pena had visited Padua, an old University town with the earliest Botanical Garden in Europe (1525), rival to Pisa, whose Garden was founded in 1544 (that of Montpellier would not be established until 1597 – still a year ahead of that at Paris).

Anyway, after qualifying in medicine at Montpellier, Pena and Lobel seem to have travelled and worked together closely for some years. Certainly around 1570 both were in England, practising medicine and visiting prominent British botanists such as William Turner (who produced the first English Flora), Dr Thomas Penny, and the pharmacist Hugh Morgan (I’m sure I’ll return to this Welsh connection). It was in London that they finished the first edition of  Stirpium Adversaria Nova, which had an unusual dual dedication: to Queeen Elizabeth I, and to the professors at Montpellier. Pena is mentioned on the title page, but not in the text, and Lobel published other works alone.  So why did they part, and  what became of Pena?  Here is a mystery – many sources say he returned to Provence to practice medicine – he published nothing more. But one source offers a solution: he may have become the secret doctor to the French King, Henri III, and this also explains why Pena died a rich man. Henri III, who came to the throne in 1574, was unpopular and was, as described by André Maurois

‘strange and disturbing….tall, thin fastidious, gracious … he showed intelligence but inspired no respect; his effeminate manners, his bracelets and necklaces, his liking for perfumes upset people, as did even more his suspect ‘little darlings’, gentlemen who were altogether too bedecked and beruffed.  When it was learned that he dressed himself as a woman for certain Court festivities, he began to be called ‘Prince of Sodom’.

Clearly there was even more soap opera material there than there is for the Germano-Greek lot in Britain. In 1589 Henri was stabbed to death with a poignard by Jaques Clement, a Dominican friar and a fanatical Catholic (he had first checked with theologians that regicide was OK if it was for religious reasons). I suppose that in the Darwinian struggle for existence till now there must have been more ridiculous royals than dangerous Dominicans – the first breeds more than the second, I guess.  One also presumes that after this drama Pena then went back to the safety of Provence.

Just two more botanical tidbits: firstly to clarify that though they described Aphyllanthes precisely, Pena and Lobel put it in the genus Caryophyllus, and it was the botanist Joseph Pitton de Tournefort who established the genus Aphyllanthes, and credited his predecessors by using the species name monspeliensis (‘from Montpellier’).

Secondly, both Lobel and Pena had plants named after them.  Lobel obviously, in Lobelia, seen in many a hanging basket. Pena was commemorated by the botanist Charles Plumier in the genus Penoea, which I think is an American shrub. Lobel, incidentally, often spelt his name L’aubel – a northern French name for a poplar tree, and the frontispieces of his books featured a nubile young woman embracing two poplars.  One can only guess what the English botanist Joseph Hooker might have designed for himself.

Thanks for getting this far. The jazz is well-known but still a favourite, and a tune to play to close your eyes and escape far from monarchist pomp: it’s Miles Davis and Bill Evans and a title that always comes to mind when I see a clump of Aphyllanthes: it’s Blue in Green, from Kind of Blue (1959).


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Urospermum dalechampii

This looks like a big dandelion, but it is a lovely lemon-yellow, often with a black centre, and I like it because it brightens up the roadside verges – and because of its historical connections. It’s a member of the Compositae family, which means that the flower head is made up of many ray-florets, tiny flowers with a long strap-like ray at one side. The centre is often black, and the outer florets often reddish-brown on their underneath edges.

A Mediterranean perennial plant, not found to the north of the Ardèche.

The young leaves can be used raw in salads: like dandelion they are quite bitter but a few will jazz up a bland lettuce, or you could follow Jane Grigson’s advice for dandelion leaves and add diced bacon, croutons, and chopped boiled egg.

So, to the history. It’s in the name: Urospermum is from the shape of the seed, but dalechampii is because it was described by the botanist and doctor Jacques Dalechamps (1513-1588) in his Historia generalis plantarum in 1586,

Jacques Dalechamps

which described 2,731 plants, the greatest number of any book then available.  Dalechamps was then practising medicine in Lyon, but had studied at the University ofMontpellier, just 16 years after Nostradamus (Michel de Notredame, 1503-1566) was expelled from there for having been an apothecary, by the very man who was later to become Dalechamps’s teacher: Guillaume Rondelet.  By that time Montpellier had already been a centre for herbal and then medical training for about 500 years: the school became a University in 1289, only  32 years after the Sorbonne.  I’ll be coming back to this topic because of the large number of plants first described byMontpellier graduates.


For the music link, back to the colour – it’s the Neville Brothers’ Yellow moon from the 1989 album of the same name. For K, and I hope this brings back some memories of New Orleans.


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