Tag Archives: viola

New gear resolution

I’d like to start by wishing all of you who have found your way to this blog:

Happy New Year!

Blwyddyn Newydd Dda!

Bonne Année!

Bona annada plan granada!

Many thanks to everyone for your interest and comments since I started last year, and welcome to anyone visiting here for the first time. It’s New Year’s Day, you haven’t got time to read, and nor have I to write much. This is a short post to share some images of flowers taken over the last few days, to show there is life out there in the middle of winter – helped by a recent mild spell with some sunny days when the temperature reached 16 degrees. And of course I’m also showing off my new camera and lens – the title isn’t a typo.

Iris unguicularis

Iris unguicularis

The Algerian Iris (I. unguicularis) – originally from North Africa but grown widely in gardens, and the first Iris to flower. This was in some waste ground next to an electricity substation – it was probably planted there, and has spread and settled. It’s a very low-growing species, and my flower book says the ovary is at or below ground level – amazing, I’ll have to look closer next time.

Geranium rotundifolium

Geranium rotundifolium

I think this is the round-leafed crane’s bill – all the little geraniums look very similar to me.  If I keep at this, I hope I’ll get better at telling them apart.



Yes, but which Euphorbia? I’m planning a longer post soon on the great variety of species of spurge round here, because I find them bizarrely fascinating. And I love their shades of green and yellow.  The little yellow star-shapes are nectar glands, and the buds are separate male flowers – the female flower usually grows in the middle of the glands. Found by the side of the road – Chaiselongue said to me, ‘You know, all the people who pass in cars are looking at you strangely – they think there’s only one thing you can be doing crouched down in a ditch.’

Viola alba subsp. dehnadii

Viola alba subsp. dehnadii

The first violet I’ve seen, on the path just by our garden – had to lie flat on the ground to take this. The Latin name is a bit confusing, but there is a white subspecies too (scotophylla) , found in the Balkans.

Resolutions: To work on a comparison of the various spurges, as I’ve said. And other topics I’ve got in mind include something about the social life of plants (yes, really), more on the beach bums of the plant world who survive on the sand dunes, the wonderful plants of the garrigue, a botanic garden mystery ( a Kewdunnit) – and much more. Hope to see you again many more times in 2013.

And there will be more Brazilian music too. Here’s the genius Baden Powell showing how to play with a lit cigarette:




Filed under Euphorbia, Geranium, Iris, Viola

Man’s best friends: Bupleurum fruticosum (shrubby hare’s ear)


This is flowering everywhere at the moment. Well, everywhere in the garrigue – sorry, I’m getting a bit Midi-centric. Its great banks of yellow flower-heads stand out as much as the deep green of its glossy leaves when all around is dry, papery and straw-like. Bupleurum is quite a big genus but this is the only species I’ve identified so far, perhaps because it’s so  bushily obvious – it’s the only shrub species.


I’m using it as an introduction to wondering about the use of animals in plant names, and this one is a bit of a puzzle. ‘Bupleurum’ means ox flank (remember the ‘bu’ of bugloss, meaning ox tongue? Post of 11th May).  Why should this be applied to this plant? No-one seems to know. My guess is that the great bushes might seem as big as the bodies of oxen.  The leaves do look like hare’s ears – well, a bit.

This plant name belongs to a group which uses animal names in a descriptive way, often with a touch of affectionate whimsy: think of harebells and foxgloves. This seems most common with wild animals – when we get to Man’s best friends, the domesticated animals, the picture seems to change.  A hierarchy emerges in which some animals appear much more equal than others. Near the top of the dung-heap, poultry gets off quite lightly: fat hen is a good salad, chickweed is a small flower which is pecked by chickens, henbane (see post for 4th August ) is a warning of poison.

Introducing a note of distaste, Geoffrey Grigson points out that in English the use of ‘horse ’in plant names ‘frequently indicates some  coarse differentiating quality’ e.g. horse-mint, horseradish, which could be seen as admiration of the size and power of the horse. Horsetail is purely descriptive.


Rosa canina – dog rose

Then if you want to show that a plant is definitely second-rate, pick your closest cottage companion: a dog-rose is unworthy of the cottage garden, even in Latin (Rosa canina).  Dog-violet and dog’s mercury both also take their names from the Latin versions (Viola  and Mercurialis canina) because the violet was not scented and the mercury was thought not as medicinal as M.annua. The pretty blue Muscari  comosum is called  ail des chiens (dog garlic) in French, presumably because you just can’t make a good sauce with it. Wild asparagus is espargue de chin (dog asparagus) in Occitan, because judged second to the cultivated variety (though I like the wild spears better).


Muscari comosum – tassel hyacinth

But it could be worse – further down the pecking order from the pecking and the barking comes the grunting. Pig, sow or hog in a name usually mean fit only for swine: hogweed, sow thistle, pignut. I mentioned the other day(21st August) that ‘purslane’ may have come originally from a pork-related derogatory word. At first I thought this apparent disrespect  for the animals on which peasant farmers depend was rather ungrateful, but I realise that there was a hierarchy in the subsistence economy of the rural household: what humans could eat, they ate.  What was left went to the dogs and chickens.  What could be foraged for free in the hills could go to the pigs. Nothing was wasted.

And the donkey – because yes, you can get lower than a hog .  Perhaps because it’s a poor version of a horse, perhaps because they will eat anything, and especially in Occitan, the donkey gets the rawest deal.  The thistles in the Cirsium genus are lo cardon d’ase in Occitan, and the Eryngium campestre  (29th August)is pan blanc d’ase.   Oddly, in Oc an aubergine is not something you’d find in an auberge, but a viet d’ase – a donkey’s penis.  Ok, perhaps you’d find that at an auberge too – but maybe outside.

For all you need to know about the different styles of expressivity in Paris and in my village, I’ll give in full my favourite entry in the lexicon Las plantas , which gives plant names in French and Occitan:

algue microscopique: flottant à la surface des eaux stagnantes, genre diatomée. La mèrda de grapaud.

In plain English – toad shit.

Some animal music for you: first, Rufus Thomas and a remake of the original record (which I couldn’t find on video):

Now the poultry:

and the canines:

If anyone can think of a song about donkeys which is acceptable family viewing, let me know.


Filed under Bupleurum

Viola tricolor, Darwin and ecology

Viola tricolor

This tiny, beautiful little plant appears each year in unexpected places in our garden, germinating from seed scattered from who knows where. It is also known as heartsease, a lovely name perhaps due to its pleasant perfume, or maybe to the arrangement of petals, described by William Turner in 1848 as  ‘Two faces in a hoode’, which led to the flower being seen as a symbol of love.

In French the name for any flower in this family is pensée (from which comes the English pansy), meaning thought, since it is an emblem of  remembering.   This enables me to make a connection to a giant of nineteenth-century thought.  I wanted to start with this plant because of its link to the name I’ve chosen for this blog and to Charles Darwin.  In The origin of species Darwin writes:

I have, also, reason to believe that humble-bees are indispensable to the fertilisation of the heartsease (Viola tricolor), for other bees do not visit this flower….Hence I have very little doubt, that if the whole genus of humble-bees became extinct or very rare in England, the heartsease and red clover would become very rare or wholly disappear.  The number of humble-bees in any district depends in a great degree on the number of field-mice, which destroy their combs and nests….Now the number of mice is largely dependent, as everyone knows, on the number of cats….Hence it is quite credible that the presence of a feline animal in large numbers might determine, through the intervention first of mice and then of bees, the frequency of certain flowers in that district!

He goes on just a few lines later to say:

In some cases it can be shown that widely-different checks act on the same species in different districts.  When we look at the plants and bushes clothing an entangled bank, we are tempted to attribute their proportional numbers and kinds to what we call chance. But how false a view is this!

Darwin’s great work was published in 1859, before the word ‘ecology’ even existed: it was coined in 1866 by one of Darwin’s greatest fans, the dashing German biologist Ernst Haeckel. Clearly, however, Darwin’s vast knowledge as a naturalist gave him an awareness of the interdependence of all living things, plants and animals, and of their environments.  There’s an interesting series of radio programmes on Darwin, originally broadcast to celebrate his bicentenary in 2009, available for listening here for anyone who wants an alternative to reading his magnum opus.

Note: From noise to aeronautics: for more on how Darwin’s term  ’humblebee’ was replaced by today’s word ‘bumblebee’  see here.


Filed under Viola