Thursday, 30 April 2015

Interesting but unlovely

Right around the end of April, when streaks of cobalt blue begin to intrude on the peripheral vision of any creature moving through the countryside, signifying the arrival of the bluebell season – as if the gangs of burly Spanish interlopers in our gardens hadn’t already alerted anyone with even half the usual complement of occular equipment in their head to this event in the calendar – right around the time, in fact, that most of us with a mind to are celebrating the appearance of a jewel bright, elegantly arching, exquisite flower, which has the power to be captivating as a solitary specimen, and breathtaking in number – something rather less gorgeous pushes its way up through the leaf litter.

This is toothwort, Lathraea squamaria, a parasitic plant that lives on the roots of hazel, alder, and beech. I’ve written before about this area being renowned for cobnut production; between that and the amount of hazel in the understory of our local mixed woodland, it’s not too hard to find an example of this unloveliest of plants, nestling at the base of a tree trunk.

Now, I’m a lover of weeds, and of nutrient cycles and food webs, fungi and detritivores – I’ve even got a soft spot for wasps, and consider them greatly beneficial to the gardener, at least until they get a bit lairy in late summer –  but I have to confess that I’ve yet to work out quite how parasites fit in to things, unless it’s as a control mechanism to control populations of  a particular organism in order to preserve the balance of an ecosystem. Perhaps it’s that. Do they always have to be quite so revolting? I am not including mistletoe in this group – apart from the fact that it’s a hemiparasite, gaining some of its nutrients from the host plant but also possessing green leaves and therefore the ability to photosynthesis some sugars of its own accord, it’s nice for us human types to look at (or stand below), and the berries provide food for birds, such as thrushes and blackcaps. But I’m afraid to say, the poor toothwort prompts an almost visceral reaction within me.

There’s something rather unwholesome about its appearance. Its leaves remain obdurately subterranean and lacking in chlorophyll (why would they need any when they can pilfer all the nutrients they need from their host?), so the only part readily visible is the short flowers stem. The common name reflects a supposed resemblance to a row of teeth – ghoulish enough, perhaps, but to my mind it’s suggestive of nothing so much as pile of old, partially exsanguinated meat that’s been left out in the rain for a couple of weeks. And before I’m accused of allowing my discomfiture at the concept of the parasitic to influence my opinion of the plant (it does), I was somewhat wary on my first encounter with it, at which point I was entirely ignorant of its identity.

Imagine my delight on discovering it’s also known as corpse flower, reputed to grow wherever there’s a dead body. Perfect for a goth’s garden. My teenage years coming back to haunt me.