Friday, 26 July 2013

Dischidia pectinoides (kangaroo pocket, ant plant)

Dancing Daffodils

Dischidia pectinoides with front cut off 'urn' to show roots growing from wall

      A few blogs ago, I was looking at amateur dramatics and some of the pitfalls. This reminded me of a production I was personally involved in. I'm in a choir and we were asked whether anyone was interested in singing in a presentation of Desperate to be Doris which was to be played at the Lowry Theatre in Salford. It was a musical and (luckily) a comedy. I had seen it a year or so previously and loved it, so put my name forward.

      An early musical scene in the play had the choir standing in tiers up to the back of the stage singing Que Sera, Sera. In theory, fluffy clouds billowed gently above and a rainbow moved serenely across the sky as the choir, swaying in unison, dreamily intoned a vision of the future, In reality, this ideal was somewhat challenged by the mind-blowing technology involved: it consisted of clouds on sticks being waved around by choir members in a way which brought to mind the hurricane season in Miami. The piece de resistance though, was a banner depicting a rainbow which slowly and dramatically unfurled as the sticks holding it were passed from singer to singer on the back row. Unfortunately the sticks seemed to be released in a haphazard way so that people became momentarily eclipsed by the rainbow and comments like ‘gerroff me foot, Kev’ and ‘hey, that was my head’ became audible above the lilting harmonies. The unison swaying was disrupted and, quite artistically really, suggested a tsunami subtending the hurricane.

      Something the organisers had overlooked was the fact that the bloke passing the sticks at the beginning of the row was about six foot eight, while the pot of gold receiving it at the other end was pushing five foot four. The result was a rainbow which sloped horizontally across the back of the stage and probably gave the audience the impression of watching the performance from a boat caught up in the hurricane I mentioned. A long discussion took place about how to solve this problem, during which various ways of marking the sticks were suggested, so that each person's height was taken into consideration and some sort of equilibrium attained. These ideas were eventually discarded when someone noticed that they were already marked anyway.

      In another scene, the hero was singing about having a secret love and how he told the daffodils about it. This was visually illustrated by choir members dressed as daffodils mincing in line onto the stage and prancing around him. The audience probably didn't realise it, but the good looking one who trailed along at the back was the only bloke. I got the part on the basis that my career in horticulture was an unassailable qualification. My botanical knowledge led me to be sceptical about the whole dancing daffodil thing though, thinking that plants with more obvious movement, like Venus fly traps, would be more appropriate.  

      And so we turn to Jeff, the choral director, alias the skateboarding nun. His task was to skateboard across the stage dressed as a nun, not because this was part of the story but because, er. well, just because. When he first demonstrated his expertise to the assembled cast, he appeared at speed from the wings, crossed half the stage, then pitched headlong, landing in a position reminiscent to that of the Altrincham goalkeeper when the ball is nestling in the net. I personally saw the fact that Altrincham were relegated that season as an ominous portent. From a horizontal position he leered at the cast with that ‘heh, heh -meant to do that’ expression’ of his which, translated, means: ‘Shit! What happened?’

      ‘I thought you said you could skate’, said an indignant  stage manager.

     He didn’t reply but the ‘heh, heh expression which now occupied his face could this time be translated as ‘I thought a skate was a fish’ or, more likely, ‘I lied through me teeth’.

      By the time of the first show, Jeff had partially mastered the technique by practising in the corridor outside the changing rooms. Unfortunately it seemed the skateboard was the brains of the outfit and Jeff had to go along with what it decided. On the night, he shot across the stage at a speed which meant that he remained unseen by anyone who happened to be blinking or sneezing at the time. This performance brought comparisons with Superman, who can move so fast as to be invisible. In fact, audience comments picked up on the dressing room relay included ‘thought I saw a blur, but may have imagined it’. A more mundane observation, made by someone with quick eyesight was a disparaging: ‘not a patch on Julie Andrews’.

      And so the show rolled on towards an inevitable sad conclusion on the Saturday night, when what was a disparate group of people become a crowd of friends, parted company: the magical world of theatre people faded into the past. We reverted from being daffodils,cowboys, indians and aeronautical nuns back to the workplace or, in my case, to my garden, where I  potter and plant more daffodils.

      So now you're sitting there, both of you, waiting for me to go on about daffodils. Sorry - it's the wrong time of year. Instead, I'm going to look at ants and an unusual plant called Dischidia pectinoides. Calm down. Try to contain the excitement.

      Dischidia pectinoides is a myrmecophilous plant which hitches its way to the light by growing on the branches of other species. 'Myrmecophilous' refers to plants which live with ants to mutual advantage. In this case, the plant produces leaves swollen into urns which the ants choose to live in and have their young. The ants breathe out carbon dioxide, which all plants need in order to produce energy-giving sugar, and the Dischidia makes full use of this. 

      When an urn ages, the ants move their families to a newer one, using the old one as a midden for excreta, bits of soil and the corpses of their dead. The plant then produces roots from the inside of this old pod and they grow into this mixture which has become a compost. Obviously roots need watering, so the plant achieves this by having pores which, in most plants, breathe water outwards into the atmosphere, instead releasing it inwards into the pod. 

      If you were lucky enough to get hold of a Dischidia (and they're pretty thin on the ground), it can be grown in a hanging basket in good light or, as shown in the top picture, up a trellis. An average living room temperature is usually sufficient for good results, with the plant in an epiphytic orchid mix. When we grew one in the glasshouses at work, it seemed to manage reasonably well without the ants but it'd be interesting to compare growth between two plants, one with and one without.

      We probably think of ourselves as being the first species to grow plants in pots. After all, there are five thousand year old Egyptian wall paintings of  pot plants to illustrate this but, in Dischidia, nature got there first, making us look not quite so clever.

      The Dischidia we've been talking about originates in The Phillipines but ants share some interesting relationships much closer to home:

      A greenfly feeds by bunging a proboscis, which is like a starched elephant's trunk, into plant cells. It forces mucus down one nostril which creates a pressure in the cell, pushing plant sugars up the other. I suppose you could say it's blowing its nose and having a good nosh at the same time. However there isn't much protein in plant sugar and, like us, greenfly need it. This means that  they have to take in a great bulk of sugar before the required protein is obtained, and their bodies aren't big enough to retain the excess, which they excrete onto the leaf. This deposit is called honeydew and is what you can experience if you park your car under a tree and return to find it covered with stickiness. Often, a strange blackness appears on leaves and this is usually the result of sooty mould, a fungus which feeds on honeydew.  
Aphids feeding

      Ants come back into the story when you get a couple of them patrolling round a plant, fighting off the greenfly predators, so that they can occasionally nip up the stem and have a few honeydew butties. The ants  farm greenfly, milking them in exactly the same way that we treat cows. Another one where nature got there first.
Ants 'farming' greenfly

Friday, 19 July 2013

Cottage Garden Plants

Cottages and Kids
Painted lady showing her liking for Verbena bonariensis

'Fun sized Mars Bars'. Their introduction caused me to look up the definition of 'fun' and it certainly didn't seem to fit the reduction of eight mouthfuls of chocolate to two. Just how daft do sales people think we are? Estate agents are masters of it: there's the 'compact third bedroom' which turns out to be perfect for someone who sleeps standing up and the 'manageable garden' which is great for the connoisseur of coloured paving. All of which reminds me of the cottage we rented in Dumfries and Galloway.

I've already mentioned the 'hot running shower' in the blog entitled 'Lichen, Moss and Liverwort'. A further creative aspect of the advertising blurb was the 'steep stairs', which turned out to be a ladder giving access to a converted loft. The 'running water' only 'ran' when you pumped it with a hand pump on the outside wall. After a lot of sweat it finally arrived in a tank in the roof, accompanied by an interesting collection of water life and bits of peat. It was drawn from a bog in the field at the bottom of the garden (romantically described by the owner as 'our private spring') and the journey through the pipe was probably a bit like some bizarre Alton Towers ride to the insects lucky enough to make the journey. Once there was some water in the roof tank, the sink taps worked in the normal way, as did the toilet. Theoretically.

The toilet cistern bore a hand-written label saying 'one quick pull for a short flush. A longer pull will give a more thorough flush. Use as necessary to save water'. The reality of the instruction varied somewhat with the theory, because we found no difference between a long pull and a short one: nothing happened with either. They were right about conserving water though, we could have hung a brick on the lavatory chain and wasted not a drop. This was later explained in an apologetic way by the owner as probably being due to peat in the water blocking the inlet to the cistern. For the rest of the week we ended up flushing by pouring a bucket of water down the toilet (and in Nick's case, down himself).

The idea of the holiday had arisen over a couple of glasses of wine and a good meal. Get the kids in an environment where there was no television (computers were not really a factor then in the early eighties) and the family would have to entertain themselves with games, walks in the country and books, reacting in a more creative, communal way. This was an ideal my wife was enthusiastic about until the effects of the wine had evaporated and the description of the cottage had sunk in. At which point she mysteriously discovered that she couldn't get the time off work and I'd have to take them myself - we'd have a full family holiday in a hotel later in the summer.

Chris, aged thirteen was the oldest, while  Laura was eleven and Nick eight. We spent the days damming streams, fishing, hiking, and competing at throwing arrows in a field at the back of the cottage. The arrows were made from canes fitted with paper flights, like the ones on darts, and they were thrown by loosely wrapping a piece of string round the end and using it to give greater propulsion. They would go for a surprising distance and gave us hours of entertainment. I'd got the idea from their description in an old Eagle annual where they were advocated for killing wild boar. The absence of boar didn't detract from the fun of just seeing who could get them the furthest. In the evening, ghost stories were the favourite pastime and this led to an interesting incident:

      Everyone had gone to bed. Chris in the attic room, me in the master bedroom downstairs and Laura and Nick in the living room/bedroom, also downstairs.

      We waited a few minutes to let things calm down, then Chris and I sneaked out through the back door and into the yard. We could hear Nick droning away, probably outlining his plans for making a bomb out of the Calor gas cylinder, or maybe contemplating the likely and (to him) interesting scenario of the lavatory bowl becoming filled to capacity.  The fishing rod was where we had left it, leaning against the wall, so we carried it to the rear of the house, taking care to walk on the grass rather than give ourselves away by crunching along the gravel path. The thing then was to avoid showing ourselves at their bedroom window, while gently tapping it with the outstretched fishing rod tip. The only time Nick ever shut up was when he was asleep, but on this occasion he made an exception, and a deathly silence ensued. Encouraged by having achieved what no one else had all week, Chris gave the window another tap, a bit louder this time.

      The response was immediate:


      We were already halfway to the back door when Nick and Laura orchestrated this better-than-hoped for response. Keeping quiet was no longer an issue, considering the mayhem caused by Laura hyperventilating and Nick exploring the capacity of his lungs, so I managed to sneak undetected into my bedroom while Chris disappeared up the ladder to the attic. We then immediately reversed the procedure and rushed into their bedroom, ostensibly to see what the fuss was about.

      Laura sat white faced on the bed with her back to the wall and bedclothes pulled up to her chin. Nick, with only the top half of his face visible above the duvet, suddenly became emboldened by our presence and rushed to the window.

      ‘It’s a big man all dressed in black. I saw him go over the wall, dad,’ he shouted, with a ‘he’s lucky I wasn’t a bit quicker or I’d have had him’ air of bravado.

      He was right though. He’d have talked the bugger to death.

      The garden of this cottage was devoid of plants other than grass and I suppose this was understandable when the owners weren't there for a large part of the year. However the cottage garden is a subject in its own right, the point never being better made than by the one time presenter of 'Gardeners World', Jeff Hamilton: he always stressed the fact that the traditional mix of subjects  in this type of planting has benefits beyond the simply aesthetic: the pests hosted by one plant are to some extent balanced by their predators living on another and the gardener's task of protective warrior lessened. The more we can do without chemical insecticides, the better. A good gardener works with nature, rather than against it.

      Really there are few rules about what constitutes a cottage garden plant, although I suppose we can exclude giant redwoods and their ilk. One of my favourites is Verbena bonariensis. Apart from sounding like something the dog dug up, it actually has a lot going for it: the butterflies and bees love it and it produces its flowers on tall unimposing stems which don't impede the view of other plants. This means that it needn't be confined to the back of the border with the other lofties - it fits most positions. A native of South America, it has a possible height of about six feet, but it usually only reaches four or five in my garden. As a perennial, it more or less disappears in winter and is always in danger of being accidentally weeded out. However it seeds itself so prolifically that, once you've got it, you're never without.

Geranium species

      Another favourite, although sometimes referred to as a bit of a thug, is the large-leaved group of geraniums. Unfortunately, and largely due to incorrect promoting by nurserymen, most people will think of geraniums as those half hardy bedding subjects which originate in South Africa and are correctly known as Pelargoniums. The true Geraniums are mostly hardy and have the added advantage of generally being tolerant of shade, although the smaller species do need full sun. Another plus is the fact that you can get second display if the old leaves and blooms are cut hard back immediately after flowering. The common name 'cranesbill' is derived from the shape of the seed capsule when the flower has gone.
Achillea millefolium (Yarrow)
Achillea 'Cloth of Gold' behind Helenium 'Sahin's Early Flowerer'

      The Achilleas popular in cottage gardens are closely related to the British native Achillea millefolium. The plant was named after Achilles, who used it medicinally for a number of purposes but found, to his cost, that it didn't work on heels. The 'millefolium' part of its name refers to 'thousand leaves', referring to the appearance of the leaflets. Although the native wildflower is usually yellow, pink varieties can often be found beside them. Steep the leaves in hot water for a couple of minutes to make a pleasant tea.

      The original cottage gardens mixed flowering plants with vegetables in a rule-defying hotch- potch, whereas the modern concept (except on organic allotments) usually only encompasses flowers. I suppose it's hard to give a spud the ooh! factor.



Saturday, 13 July 2013

Arisaema tortuosum (whipcord lily) and Arum maculatum (cuckoo pint)

Strange Plants

Arisaema tortuosum (whipcord lily)

In an effort to try something different with my blog, and acting on the suggestion of my eldest son, Chris, I've preceded the gardening stuff with one of my short stories:     

What Goes Round Comes Round

      Adam looked at the derelict landscape with mixed feelings:

      There is something exciting about ground being reclaimed by nature: huge concrete plinths – once the floors of factories and warehouses of the old dockland– stand in silent testimony to the ephemeral existence of man’s endeavours; skeins of rose bay willow herb and Oxford ragwort follow spreading cracks and joints which young willows, birches and the ubiquitous Buddleia force further apart. The rattle and hum of machinery has given way to birdsong and the thrumming of insects servicing the advancing green army. The stress of deadlines and the need to produce, produce, produce, has succumbed to a gentler rhythm. No doubt the pace of life in the microcosm is as hectic in its own way – a struggle for existence - but it does not disturb the mechanism of the planet. It defies modern man’s system of existing in spite of nature by existing with nature.

      He gave his imagination full rein:
      Close by, the canal echoes the change: gone is the floating skin of litter and dead fish – testimony to man’s scorn for the planet which nurtured him – to be replaced by water lilies. Occasional flag iris displaying large chestnut brown seed, promise further colonisation. Maybe these plants will work the same changes as those on the concrete plinths: forcing stonework apart; allowing water to first seep, then cascade out, leaving a dry lane and a scattering of fish skeletons and empty freshwater mussels between the ancient walls.

      Within a century, harshness will be replaced by lush greenery. Tall buildings will become pergolas, gradually eroding back into the land. Emulating the Inca temples, they have the same crumbling destiny. Future visitors to the planet will find an uneven verdant carpet suggesting an interesting geological past. Maybe they’ll bring archaeologists who’ll dig and discover the remains of a great civilisation, beginning the theorising on how it was wiped out. Their version of the dinosaurs.

     He smiled inwardly and tomorrow reverted to today. The concrete plinths were still there, supporting their influx of wildlife, but the nearby canal had regained its flotsam. A fisherman had more chance of catching a shopping trolley than a carp in there. The ground occupied by the plinths was to become the new tram terminal. Already they’d started erecting palisade fencing. Nature’s recovery would be stopped. But only put on hold. Eventually man would overpopulate himself into extinction and the green tide would flood back in. Cycles. Everything runs in cycles.

     Lost in thought, he hadn’t noticed the darkening sky. Now he looked up at a rolling black cloud. It was edged a strange fiery orange, as the sun fought a retreating battle. Better be getting back. As he stood to go, the first large drops spattered around him, quickly mottling the dry concrete. The background hum of insects had died away and he absently wondered where they went during rain. One large raindrop hitting a hover fly would be the equivalent of at least one bucketful hitting a person. Coming from a height, you could probably include the bucket in the resulting impact.

      There was a rumble of thunder in the distance. A vivid flash of lightning caused him to break into a run – he stood out on this flat terrain as a homing beacon for the next one - one, two, three, four, five, then a louder rumble. Divided by five meant it was a mile away, if the theory worked.

      The weather had been becoming more and more extreme. “Global warming” was the now concerted cry from the scientists, but their predictions didn’t ring true: the long, hot summers of drought had become long, cold summers of increasing rainfall and strange electrical disturbances.

      He looked for shelter. There was nothing immediate, only the plinths stretching away to the canal in one direction and the main road in the other. On either side were stretches of newly erected palisade fence.

      A movement caught his eye.  Red.  A fleeting glimpse of someone wearing a red coat, disappearing behind foliage denser than the willows and birches. Japanese knot weed, he thought absently, as his eyes strained to detect further movement. There was none, but he unthinkingly broke into a run across the eroding surface towards where the figure had disappeared. Not that he particularly wanted to see anyone but simply because he remembered the bus shelter on the main road, somewhere beyond where he’d seen the person.

     The rain was becoming a deluge and he was already soaked, jeans and t-shirt providing little protection. Running past the dense clump of Japanese knot weed he saw what had previously been shielded: a large cellar-type door propped open with a wooden beam. It was the entrance to what had probably been some sort of storage facility when walls and a roof had surrounded the plinth, and stone steps led down into darkness. In spite of the rain, he was intrigued, and ran closer, stopping to peer down into the darkness. Another flash of lightning was followed immediately by a crash of thunder which shook the ground.

     He didn’t like the idea of going down the steps, but the lightning had been close, and he liked the idea of being fried even less. Only a few steps down and he’d be sheltered from the downpour and lightning.

      The steps were steep and he grasped a rusting handrail to steady his descent.  Eight steps down, and he stopped, eyes straining into the gloom. A concrete-walled passage led from the bottom of the stairs that on the right were lined with conduit piping. It was bathed in a strange orange glow which echoed that of the edge of the thunder cloud. The glow seemed to ripple, moving like something alive, and he shrank from the phenomena, turning to escape the place; best take his chances with the lightning. Before he could go back however, a deafening crash of thunder pealed directly overhead. This time the earth shook with an answering rumble, mother whale calling its stranded infant, and the outside light was cut off as the supporting beam dislodged, causing the door to crash down.

      The rumbling continued and his ears rang with the cacophony.  He sat down on the step, shocked by the surrounding primal violence. Closing his eyes, he told himself to relax. There was no problem. At least he was dry down here and there was no danger from the lightning.

      But the orange glow - what the hell was that? It wasn’t coming from any form of bulb but seemed to simply emanate from the walls, causing a shimmering effect which gave the feeling of being under coloured water. It seemed to be getting brighter (although maybe his eyes were adjusting to the gloom), outlining the retreat of the passage into the distance to where it disappeared round a bend.  He didn’t know how long the factory had been derelict, but the advancement of plant growth on the plinth indicated a couple of years. In that case, it seemed unlikely that any form of lighting be left on in this basement. He wondered what had gone on in the building when it was in use, and hoped to God it was nothing to do with radioactivity.

      Nervous now, he backed up the steps, stooping towards the top then pushing upwards against the door with his shoulders. Nothing. It was jammed shut. Sweating and cursing, he tried again, but the wood seemed immovable. Probably the earth movement caused by the thunder had twisted the frame. He sat down, hunched under the door, and looked back along the passage, beginning to feel real fear. His position wasn’t good. Stuck in a cellar in a place rarely visited and his cell phone was on charge at home. The people in his house- share were both out at work and, in any case, didn’t have any idea where he was. They’d simply think he was out botanising again. Well, he was, but not in one of his usual venues. He’d come to this area because the tram route went past, skirting the main road, and the resurgence of growth, seen from the window, had looked interesting. It seemed a perfect illustration of what he’d learnt in college about the way plant communities evolve, perhaps having potential to enhance his thesis.

      Think logically.

      Maybe there was more than one entrance. Given the size of the place, that seemed likely. Another plus was that the strange glow replaced the pitch blackness you would normally expect, making it possible to see, albeit to a limited extent.  He clambered down the rest of the steps into the passage and was pleased to stand upright again. The air had a slight sharp smell which he couldn’t put his finger on.

     The red coat. He remembered the figure which had disappeared somewhere in this vicinity. Maybe he wasn’t the only one stuck in this place, unless that person had also been heading towards the bus shelter. However, it seemed here was only one way to find out, so he set out along the tunnel, moving forward tentatively in the limited light. He gradually became aware of a humming sound emanating from somewhere ahead. It rhythmically rose and fell  and he noticed that the waves of orange light undulated in sympathy.

      Considering the length of time it had been out of use, the passage was remarkably clean. The only signs of neglect were the spider webs adorning the concrete ceiling corners and draped over the piping on the walls. He grinned momentarily at the thought of his sister with her pathological fear of anything with eight legs – something much exploited by himself and his younger brother. Kids could be cruel.

      He walked about twenty yards then stopped. A door, invisible from the steps, was let into the wall on the left hand side. It was heavy, made of iron, and a turn of the handle proved it to be locked. He put his ear to it but heard nothing. There was no way he could force it without some sort of tools, so he carried on, hoping to find another. He reached the point of the tunnel where it right-angled to the left, exposing an equally long section.  A few yards along, another door became visible. This time it was slightly open, and light flooded through the gap.  Moving quietly, he pushed it and peered in. The room, neon lit,  appeared to be some sort of control centre.

      “Excuse me, but what the hell are you doing down here?” asked the blond girl. Wearing a red anorak, she was looking upwards at him from the front of sloping banks of seating fronted by individual computer screens -  an area reminiscent of a space launch control centre. At the far side of the room and facing the seats, a bank of controls filled the whole wall. Green and red coloured lights were flashing and source of the low-level hum seemed to be coming from somewhere behind.

      Relieved to find someone in that place, he explained, in an apologetic way, before asking her the same thing.

      “Environment agency”, she replied, hand reaching automatically to touch the identity card hanging from her neck, “checking complaints that this place is polluting the canal. Didn’t you notice the fish?”.

      She walked across and stood next to him in the doorway, looking down the passage towards the corner. She was a few inches shorter than his six foot and the open anorak displayed the fact that she was wearing jeans and an Environment Agency green top.

      A thought struck him.

      “How come the lights are working?” he asked, looking at the fluorescent ceiling bulbs in the lab, “and this control panel. What’s it all about?”

      “Haven’t the foggiest”, she said, vaguely. “The place used to be an M.O.D. lab – they researched stuff during the cold war. Rumour has it that they were playing with the concept of controlling time. Very H.G. Wells. I’m not sure what use that’d be in a battle situation – unless you could keep going back to the beginning and changing your approach until you won. Anyway, obviously it didn’t work, or we’d have heard about it.” She pursed her lips, looking thoughtful. “Everything here seems to be circuitry and electronics, so I can’t think any pollution is coming from it. I’ll check from the office to see what this stuff is that’s still running”.

      “And this orange glow?”, he said, knowing she had no answer.

      “I think we’d better use it to find our way back to the door. I’ve had enough of this place. Someone else can check it out”.

      “Eve”, he said, smiling and reading her identity tag, “I like your way of thinking”, and they walked along the passage in the direction of the door. The glow seemed to be undergoing some sort of change. At one point, it suddenly lessened to such a degree that they had to feel their way along. To avoid bumping into each other, she slipped her hand in his and they shuffled along in the dark until they bumped into the base of the steps.

      “Now what?” she asked.

      The answer came from above. A deafening peal of what they supposed to be thunder. The surroundings shook and the hum from the control centre, which until now had been an almost subconscious presence, rose to a high pitched wine. The ceiling shimmered, steadied, then evaporated, allowing bright sunlight to stream in. They  involuntarily crouched as a roof cave-in seemed imminent, tensed for the first impact of falling concrete. Somehow they were still holding hands and now, as the sounds died away, she squeezed his.

      “Look”, she said, breathlessly.

      Adam looked.

      The passage was gone and his first impression was that the roof had simply blown off. However, there was no debris, no plinths, no canal and they were surrounded by greenery. Tall trees edged the clearing they were standing in and grass reached their knees. Butterflies and myriad other insects flitted busily, the hum of wings replacing that of traffic. The sky was clear and blue, devoid of  aeroplane traceries  and the air smelled different – somehow cleaner.  As  they looked, the branch of a nearby tree seemed to move, coming to life with a ripple of energy which transformed itself into a giant snake. It stopped, melding back into the greenery and their attention shifted to the end of the branch where an enticing red fruit hung.

     Eve eyed it thoughtfully.


And while I'm being different seems a good time to look at one of my garden plants which fits the same category. It's called Arisaema tortuosum (whipcord cobra lily) and I can't remember where I got it from. I suppose it won't fit most people's idea of 'aesthetically pleasing' (in fact my wife sees it as a blot on the landscape) but, for me, it makes up for this by being interesting. It seems it can reach six feet high but, in my garden, only achieves about four foot. It dies back completely a few weeks after flowering only to reappear the following June, forcing its way through a tight groundcover of Adjuga.

Originating in the Himalayas, the plant is closely related to our own lords and ladies (Arum maculatum), being in the Araceae family. It needs insects for  pollination and, again like lords and ladies, attracts them with a dreadful pong - another trait which my wife finds endearing.
Arum maculatum (lords and ladies, cuckoo pint)

Apparently the moth fly is the main pollinator of lords and ladies (also called cuckoo pint). The male and female flowers are held separately on the stem below the white, sail- like, spathe and protected in a compartment by a thin wall and a ring of downward facing hairs. The poker-like projection in the spathe is called a spadix and this heats up to release a scent of urine. This attracts the moth fly, a delightful little chap who lives on dung and finds urine our equivalent of champagne. Unfortunately for him, the spadix is coated with an oily substance which causes his feet to slip and he falls down past the hairs into the hidden compartment. Because of the way the hairs are positioned, he can't get out and the technical term for this situation is 'knackered'.

 At this point the female part of the flower, situated in the lower part of the compartment, are ripe for pollination and pollen adhering to the body of the fly is transferred in his desperate attempts to escape. Eventually enough pollen is received from the many moth flies which have become trapped, and the female flower shuts up shop. When this happens, the male flower, which has been closed and inactive, opens and releases clouds of pollen so that the poor old moth flies, having just got rid of all the dusty pollen on their bodies, suddenly resemble workers in a McDougal factory. The downward facing hairs then quickly wither and the flies escape into the great blue beyond.
Cut version showing the downward facing hairs, male and female flowers

Qualification for being a moth fly is a need to be as daft as a brush because, having escaped, he flies along and is suddenly attracted by a rapturous smell of urine. Wow! Down he zooms, only to get caught in another lords and ladies flower, where the same process is repeated.

And this is how this particular plant has evolved in order to be pollinated by another. Genetic diversity is recognised as being important by humans, and we create laws against marrying too closely into the family. however, plants can't create laws, so they evolve in many different ways to ensure cross breeding and maintain hybrid vigour.

The mouse plant (Arisarum proboscideum), native to Spain and Italy, is another close relative of the above. This hides in a moist, shady spot in my garden and the flowers can be of interest to children because the flowers have drawn out ends which  look like mouse tails.
Arisarum proboscideum ( mouse plant)

The flower and 'tail'

Friday, 5 July 2013

Davidia involucrata - the ghost tree

Spooky Goings On

 Where the hell did it go?
Picture shot on Farne Islands during holiday
The lack of a blog last week is down to the fact that we went on holiday to enjoy a bit of luxury. The sleepy little seaside village of Alnmouth in Northumberland was the ideal setting for this and we knew we'd made the right choice. Until we experienced the 'bargain price' hotel room, that was. I suppose the large spider in the en suite bath was the first inkling of all not being well. Spiders are sometimes seen as being lucky, but not when they're the size of a tarantula, and this one looked as if it hadn't eaten. We hurriedly left the spider to its deliberations and decided to wind down by watching something on telly.

The television was tiny and  mounted on the wall, near the ceiling. When I tried to turn it on nothing happened, so my wife went down and complained to the girl on reception. As a result, the 'handyman' turned up carrying a large plasma TV. This was more like. However, when I explained how the one in situ didn't work, he immediately pointed out that it was because I hadn't switched the box on. This took some time, because he spoke in a Geordie accent which was completely unintelligible to me. There are only so many times you can say "pardon?" without eventually giving in with a hopeful "yes". However, in this case the word 'box' is difficult to mangle and that was the one I clung to.

"What box?", I asked.

He looked at me as if I was daft.

"This one", he said, moving a sign about breakfast times on the dressing table below the telly, to reveal a plastic box adorned with a red light. He then launched into another unintelligible and obviously patronising Geordie explanation of 'boxes'. I swear that if I'd made out the word 'pet', I'd have got really mad and set my wife on him. Anyway he  then flicked the remote a few times before the light eventually turned green. At the same time Andy Murray appeared on the set, knocking hell out of a tennis ball. The handyman gave me a sympathetic smile, hoisted the plasma TV back under his arm and left me to watch the tennis. By this time my wife was downstairs in the bar enjoying a free glass of wine (for the trouble she'd been put to)  and watching Andy on a screen covering half a wall.

This was the smallest screen I've ever seen and the only way of viewing (there were no chairs in the room) was to lie on the bed, propped up by pillows. This was nice and comfortable, but had the disadvantage of being at such a distance from the screen that it was hard to make out faces. I overcame this difficulty by using my binoculars but, by this time, Andy had won. Later in the evening we started  to watch a film but gave up because it was awkward with only one pair of binoculars.

Everything in the place worked, but only when you got the knack: the lavatory flush handle did a complete circle and threatened to come out unless you pressed it in while jerking it quickly and the sash window opened but refused to close unless you threw all your weight on it, then it came down with a crash that caused other residents to fall out of bed. The shower was a contraption I remember using back in the '50's - a rubber tube with a nozzle on one end and dividing into two at the other, each ending in sockets you attached to the bath taps. This worked alright for a while but, because the tube wasn't quite long enough, you would inevitably pull it slightly, causing one of the sockets to come off and scalding water to hit your feet while the spray went freezing cold. As an interesting diversion from this, it would occasionally do it the other way round.
"Hey - love the lipstick"
Puffins on The Farne Islands

When we went down for breakfast the following day, it was to be served by a female version of Basil Faulty. When everyone complained that the milk was sour, her reaction was to wordlessly retire to the kitchen then return with the news that the sell-by date on the carton was in a week's time. There was no apology, simply the implicit threat that the milkman would die and some Manuel - type waiter would get his head slapped. We never saw her smile but, working in that place, maybe she could be excused.

On the positive side, after putting my glasses on, I determined that the 'tarantula' was actually a large crack in the bath enamel, probably caused by someones head as they slipped while trying to use the shower.

The hotel is a seventeenth century grade 2 listed building and apparently has been labelled as 'the most haunted hotel in Great Britain' by the Poltergeist Society. We never experienced anything spooky apart from a neon light which flickered each time we went past (and each time we didn't). However, the spooky claim was enough to justify my gardening topic, which is the ghost tree.
Ghost tree at Harewood House, Yorkshire

The Latin name for the ghost tree is Davidia involucrata. It was given the genus name because the French missionary and naturalist Armand David sent reports of it growing in Sichuan, China in 1869; involucrata refers to the white involucre of bracts which surround the flower. The common names ghost tree, dove tree and handkerchief tree all refer to the appearance of the bracts.

The plant hunter Ernest Wilson was commissioned by Veitch, a British nursery man, to find seeds and send them back. Because the original tree had gone, this led to a nightmare eight month journey via Hanoi, Shanghai and the Yangtse gorges before he reached the village where a specimen had last been sighted. Unfortunately, it was to find a newly cut stump next to the house where the timber had just been used for roof beams. In view of the facts that his boat had been wrecked in rapids, his Chinese guide was a heroin addict and the Boxer rebellion was going on all around, he could have been forgiven for giving up and taking to stamp collecting. However, apart from reportedly vowing to never buy another Chinese take-away, Wilson continued his search and, in 1900, found a grove of the trees.

He triumphantly sent 37 seeds back and one of these, thought to be the first one in Europe, germinated. However, in true British Captain Scott style, it was then determined that a French nursery had grown one five years earlier. Wilson's mission had became yet another heroic failure.

It may seem a good idea to plant a Davidia in the garden but you must bear in mind the fact that it can take up to 20 years to come into flowering. This makes it a poor bet if you're getting on a bit and not starting any serials.

Davidia seed - about size of a walnut