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Thursday, March 31, 2011

Forsythia x intermedia, Oleaceae

Few shrubs are as easy to cultivate ("in almost any soil short of a bog": Graham Stuart Thomas) or provide such a reliable display of spring flowers as Forsythia, so it's hardly surprising that its blooms light up suburban gardens everywhere at this time of year. This fine specimen was flowering on the banks of the River Tyne at Wylam yesterday, with its mass of blooms contrasting with the still-leafless branches of the trees on the riverbank.
The modern Forsythia Forsythia x intermedia is a hybrid between F. suspensa and F. viridissima, first produced in the 1880s and since reproduced with various improvements on numerous occasions by intercrossing these two species, both originating from China. The parental species are not seen very often in cultivation these days. F. suspensa has long, trailing shoots that  William Robinson, in his English Flower Garden (1883), suggested looked best when they were either trailed over a sunny wall or secured to it (when "the long, slender branchlets dispose themselves in a very graceful manner"). It flowers all along its shoots, so to achieve the best display of blooms at least some of the long shoots should not be pruned. In contrast the hybrid, which inherits its shrubby stature from F. viridissima, flowers on side shoots, so some shortening of long shoots immediately after flowering keeps the plant reasonably compact and still guarantees a mass of golden blooms in the following spring; I've seen some very striking, quite formal flowering hedges created with this species.

An important factor in the popularity of Forsythia is that its flower buds are not damaged by hard frosts in March. Some research at Purdue University back in 1995 indicated that this was at least partly due to the fact that the flower tissues accumulate soluble sugars, that protect the cells from catastrophic effects of freezing.
It's quite often stated that Forsythia flowers contain the carbohydrate lactose, which is otherwise only found in milk secreted by the mammary glands of mammals. I'm not sure how this claim originated, but a study by biochemists at Tohoku University in Japan in 1991 failed to find any trace of lactose in the flowers.
Interestingly, in 1998 genetic engineers at the National Institute for Agrobiological Resources at Ibaraki in Japan managed to express mammalian milk proteins in tobacco plants, for potential pharmaceutical applications - a biochemical feat that half a billion years of plant evolution failed to achieve.

Monday, March 28, 2011


So here we are again, on the threshold of another gardening year - and surely there is nothing that epitomises the gardener's feelings of hope and expectation more than a flower bud at the point of opening.

It's worth leaning on your garden spade, taking a breather from digging and contemplating the mind-boggling processes that have taken place inside a flower bud in the months, days and weeks that have led up to this moment. Somewhere in the apex of the plant tissues a group of cells has become committed to becoming a flower rather than developing into leaves. They've undergone a precise series of divisions and choreographed cell expansions that has produced an embryonic flower, tightly packaged in a bud that only requires a little warmth and a surge of water coursing through its tissues to expand into its full glory.

It's been weeks in the making - months in the case of bulbous species like bluebell whose flower initials were formed in the bulb last year - and as soon as the flower has done its job and attracted a pollinator it will collapse and die. I can think of nothing in nature where the combination of structure and function have evolved to an extent that is so aesthetically satisfying - or so fleeting; the product of hundreds of millions of years of evolution, the individual life of flower is measured in days.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Say It With Flowers

When did you last receive of bouquet of flowers from an admirer? Recently, I hope. But did you take a really close look at the kinds of flowers that came? Perhaps not. A century ago - back in Victorian and Edwardian times - the gift of flowers was loaded with hidden meaning. They had a language all of their own. At the tail end of the nineteen century and into the early twentieth century people really did ‘say it with flowers’, and the wrong choice of species could land you in serious trouble. No refined lady could afford to be without the latest edition of that indispensable manual of floral etiquette in polite society, The Language of Flowers. This copy belonged to my grandmother.

Each different species of flower conveyed a powerful message and arrival of the florist at the door would see the lady of the house flicking through the pages of the manual, decoding the bouquet. A camellia sent as a compliment symbolised 'perfect loveliness', while a pot of basil was a declaration of 'hatred'.

The layout of the book was simple and convenient. The first half contained a list of flowers with their meaning, the second half a list of sentiments and the flowers that expressed them. With successive editions the meanings were sometimes changed a little, which might have made these floral conversations a little tricky if you didn't remain au fait with the latest flowery language.

Botanically speaking, a burgeoning relationship might go something like this. Smitten by desire, a young suitor might send the girl of his dreams a single Coreopsis bloom, a declaration of 'love at first sight'. He’d be hoping for the return of a daisy, meaning ‘I share your sentiments’. Most often, I suspect, the lady would have been more circumspect. She might want to reassure herself first that her suitor was well-heeled, and despatch a kingcup (‘desire of riches’). Recognising he’d hooked a gold-digger, he might respond with a scarlet poppy ( promising ‘fantastic extravagance’), unless he was hard up, in which case vernal grass (‘poor but happy’) would be the reply. If that was the case then a mesembryanthemum (‘your looks freeze me’) would leave him in no doubt that further advances would be to no avail until he'd made his fortune.

It might all end there, but perhaps pride and outrage would trigger one final exchange of floral abuse. The swift despatch of pasque flowers (‘you have no charms’) from him, followed by Scotch thistle (‘retaliation’) and tansy (‘I declare war against you’) from her might open hostilities. If they really wanted to be abusive the spurned suitor might send the florist staggering up the garden path under the weight of a water melon (hinting at a tendency towards ‘bulkiness’ in the addressee).

Or perhaps his initial advances might be more successful. The opening exchange of coreopsis and daisies might escalate into something decidedly steamier. Pressing home his early success with orange blossom (‘your purity equals your loveliness’) might trigger a reply of a peony (‘bashfulness’) and marjoram (‘blushes’). Time for a bit more flattery with a damask rose (alluding to her ‘brilliant complexion’), in the hope that peach blossom (‘I am your captive’) might coming winging back through the post. If it did, he might risk despatching tuberose (hinting at ‘dangerous pleasures’), keeping his fingers crossed that the reply would be an African marigold (admonishing him for his ‘vulgar mind’) – a sort of Victorian “Ooooo! You are awful” – and not a dried white rose (indicating that ‘death is preferable to loss of innocence’).

If the African marigold arrived the swift despatch of a cuckoo pint (an unequivocal symbol of ‘ardour’) would leave her in no doubt as to what he had in mind, so she could safely despatch a white ditanny flower (hinting at ‘passion’), confirming her willingness to live dangerously .

But by then all those visits to the florist would have set the servants’ tongues wagging. A Cobaea bloom (warning of ‘gossip’) would set alarm bells clanging and would call for the despatch of mandrake (as an expression of ‘horror’) in return. A hellebore bloom (symbolising a whiff of ‘scandal’) would break the bad news that this wild botanical courtship had become talk of the town, so finally the suitor must be forced to do the decent thing and - pausing briefly to contemplate the folly of loose floral talk and the effect on his bank balance before he let his letter slide into the postbox – despatch a lime leaf ('marriage').

No wonder Victorian courtships were such drawn out affairs, if lovers had to scour gardens, florists and the countryside to find just the right flowers to convey their feelings. Where could you get a red columbine in January, if you wanted to tell your betrothed that you were ‘trembling with anxiety’? How inconvenient (and ecologically irresponsible) to have to scour the countryside for a frog orchid to convey your ‘disgust’ at their conduct. The Language of Flowers must surely be the most impractical form of communication ever devised......  but this genteel form of dialogue was infinitely more romantic than the modern text message - and often fragrant too. 

Maybe there is still someone out there who respects the old niceties of polite society. So keep a daisy to hand, just in case you receive an unexpected twig of spindle tree (‘your charms are engraved on my heart’) or a pineapple (‘you are perfect’). But if you do decide to respond, better get hold of a copy of The Language of Flowers first. There’s no telling where this botanical banter might lead.

The fly-leaf of my grandmother's copy bears this inscription: To Miss Nancy Fox, with every good wish from Mr. John Smith, 21st.August 1920 and it bears a cut-out picture of a pansy, which conveyed the message 'You Occupy my Thoughts'. At first sight that's a little odd, because she didn't marry a John Smith. So was this a rejected suitor? I suspect not. John Smith is not a very convincing name, is it? I suspect it was my grandad, Harry. At that time he had recently returned as a wounded soldier from the Great War. She was a young teenager, employed by a local nursery to hand-write invoices, on account of her love of flowers and beautiful script handwriting - the only school qualification she had. This might have been his first advance, in which he thought it proper to conceal his real identify, hoping that his gift would be the start of a floral courtship. We'll never know for sure, but she kept this little book until the day she died.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Honeysuckle or Woodbine, Lonicera periclymenum, Caprifoliaceae

“The beauty and fragrance of its flowers make it a welcome guest in our gardens, hedges and arbours”, wrote William Withering in 1776, in his Botanical arrangement of all the Vegetables Naturally growing in Great Britain. For my money none of the cultivated varieties quite match the scent of the wild species, emitting its scent on a warm, still summer night in a country lane. The wild plants seem to have paler, yellower flowers without so much of the purple pigment. Honeysuckle only flowers well if it's in a sunny position and to achieve that it climbs, sometimes to the top of trees, but it's at its best when it climbs through a hedge.
The scent is emitted just as disk falls, attracting moth pollinators, notably hawk-moths that hover with long probosces extended just in front of the flowers, which is why ...

... the stamens and stigma are so long - to make contact with the hovering pollinator.
After pollination the berries that form are a great attraction for blackbirds. By one of those happy accidents in gardening, they've perched on our otherwise dull leylandii hedge and voided the seeds in their droppings, so honeysuckle has clambered up through the conifers, which have become a wall of scent on summer evenings.
That in turn has brought this delightful little moth into the garden - the twenty plume moth Alucita hexadactyla, which breeds on the honeysuckle and is strongly attracted to light, setting on the lit wndows of the house after dark. Back in 1776 William Withering noted that several moths visited honeysuckle: “The insects that have been observed to feed on the honeysuckle include the Priver Hawk Moth Sphinx ligustri, the brown feathered moth, Phalaena didactyla, the small bee moth, Sphinx tipuliformis, and the many feathered moth Phalaena hexadactyla”. I think this is the latter, after a change of Latin name.

Some cultivars continue to produce flowers right through until the first frosts - as this one did - but there are also winter-flowering species that bring fragrance to the dullest months of the year.
This is Lonicera x purpusii that begins flowering outside our conservatory door in January. A few sprigs in a vase will scent a whole room.
Given the opportunity, honeysuckle will climb to the tops of small trees, curling around the trunk for support, which is why it acquired the alternative name of woodbine. John Gerard , writing in his Great herball or Generall Historie of Plantes in 1597, described how “Wood-binde or Hony-suckle climeth up aloft, having long slender woody branches........oftentimes winding it selfe so straight and hard about, that it leaveth its print upon those things so wrapped”.

This is what he meant. It puts me in mind of this statue.
For a closer look at the strangling tendencies of honeysuckle, take a look at this.