Saturday, 9 March 2013

How Bulbs Work

The Big Time - Not

Narcissus 'February Gold' - a bulb
As a  group, our ability was no match for our ambition. Playing in the numerous folk clubs - in the late sixties every pub had one - was alright but didn't pay well. Substitute 'well' with 'at all' and you get the idea. We'd invested in some expensive amplifiers and mikes on hire purchase and a bit of income to subsidise this would be very useful. We couldn't afford speakers as well, so we'd made some ourselves. There were two of them, painted black, six foot high and looking a bit like coffins. In fact they were so heavy I sometimes wondered if  bodies had mysteriously materialised in them.

My wife had seen an advert for 'artistes' to attend auditions for working men's clubs in Oldham. We should have known better, having already had an unfortunate experience playing for a pub wedding party in that celubrious neck of the woods. This had ended up as a free-for-all from which we barely escaped with our guitars intact. But money is money, so we turned up at the advertised club, complete with coffins. The audition room, up a flight of steep stairs, was packed with Woodbine - smoking club secretaries and seemed a likely source for the pea-soup fogs we used to have. 'Club Secretary' was (and probably still is) a title representing power. Most of them would be lowly paid workers subjugated by bullying bosses during the day. But at night they came into their own. Their word, supplemented by frequent reference to the sexual act,  was final and you'd better know it.

Rather nervously, watched by about eighty power freaks, we assembled our beloved equipment at the back of the stage, then stood at the side to wait our turn. A number of acts trouped to and from the dressing room at the back, going in as Joe Bloggs and emerging in glittering finery that put our black gear to shame. When I say 'dressing room', the anticipated star wasn't on the door: it was simply a dumping area for empty crates of beer, old electrical equipment and cleaning gear. A wooden chair and row of clothes hooks were the only concession to 'changing', although I suppose the dirty cracked mirror may have crept into this category.

At nine oclock the compere, a bloke of about forty, completely bald and looking very like one of the wrestlers popular on the TV at that time, walked onto the stage clutching a pint of beer and introduced the first act. This was a singer  who belted his way through 'My Way' and only got away with it because he was the size of a brick shed and looked twice as mean. 'His Way' received a few half-hearted claps and no derision. And so followed a number of acts, mostly singers backed by the resident organist and drummer who played so loudly the audience were saved undue suffering from the larynxes of the would-be Elvises, because they were drowned out. The organist and drummer were a fixture in these places, priding themselves in being able to back anyone. The unfortunate aspect of this was that they were usually half way through a song before getting the hang of it and 'key', to the organist, was probably just something to open the door with.

Crocus - a corm
A couple of comedians then laid the lie of the popular concept that 'modern stand-ups rely on bad language and smut - not like the old days'. Seemingly, these blokes were trend setters and their flow of filth and racism went down well with the assembled intellectuals.  A woman singer was down to perform before us and she didn't get through many bars of 'Smoke Gets In Your Eyes' before shouts of 'drop 'em blossom' and 'gerroff' caused her to break down in tears. Seemingly unaware, the organist and drummer continued with 'A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square', which they must have decided was close enough because Nat King Cole sang both songs. At this the compere clambered on stage, glared at the audience threateningly, and admonished them to 'give the poor cow a chance'. Understandably, this gave us no end of confidence.

After the woman left the stage, no doubt rethinking her career on the boards, we were on, having politely refused the offer of  'backing' by the drummer and organist. I walked nervously to the back of the stage in an ominous silence while the audience reserved judgement on the two young blokes and a girl who were about to entertain them. I switched the amps on and, heartstoppingly, nothing happened. No red light showed they were working. Sweating, I messed with the wires and my mate Tony used his extensive knowledge of electronics by pulling out the plugs and putting them back again. This went on for a couple of minutes and I was considering how we could do a runner carrying the coffins, when the wrestler came on and announced that 'due to technical problems' we'd have the break early. Then he told us to get it fixed. He didn't actually say 'or else' but that was taken as read.

While they had a couple of rounds of bingo, which seemed to be the most popular aspect of those evenings, we played with the wiring until, at last, the little red lights unaccountably winked on. Then we switched off and waited, nervously. We were re-introduced after the fervour of excitement engendered by the bingo died down, and climbed back on the stage in another ominous silence. I switched the amps on, watched the red lights fail to become red and, in growing panic, again flicked the switches. Nothing. We were going to get lynched and  Big Daddy was heading back towards the stage when a bloke standing to the side said 'ere, you can use my amp'.
Wild garlic - a bulb which is invasive

This man was a singer and he'd brought his own backing track which was played through an amp large enough to deafen a cup final crowd at Wembley. It was situated at the side of the stage, so we gratefully plugged in and the wrestler hung back on his forearm smash while we struck up with 'The Gypsy Rover'.

Unfortunately, the guitar leads were only long enough to reach our own amps situated just behind us. The one we were using was considerably further away, which meant that we had to huddle in one corner of a stage the size of the London Palladium  and the leads were stretched tight. I had one just under my nose and my left leg was over another so that I was standing on one foot as if frozen in mid-step. The other two weren't much better off but strangely the audience remained peaceful and we eventually finished our set and trouped off unmolested.

Amazingly, we got four bookings from this. Apparently they thought we were a comedy act.

And this whole story hangs around the little red lights which failed to perform, bringing bulbs to mind. A plant in a package: everything is there, only needing water to set off the expansion of leaves, roots and flowers. This is readily shown by growing a daffodil in a bulb glass containing only water.

The bulb, representing the resting phase of a plant, is a bit like a balloon. It deflates as the energy is drawn from it to produce the flower, and so needs blowing up again if it is to perform next year. The blowing up is achieved by sugars, produced  in the leaves, being pumped down into it, and this is why we leave the foliage on for six weeks or so after the flower is finished. The leaves need sunlight to produce the sugars and if we follow the daft practise of tying the leaves back on themselves because they 'look neater', we are halving the light- catching potential and hindering this regrowth.

Corms are a bit different, in that, instead of the structure being re-inflated, a new one is formed on top of the old. Thinking logically, this should mean that eventually your crocus corms will appear on top of the lawn or bed. However, they have adapted to avoid this by developing contractile roots. These are unlike ordinary roots in that they grow to a point and then shorten, pulling the new corm down until it occupies the same space as the previous one.
Bluebells look great but can also be invasive
Flowers are formed because, although most bulbs spawn new ones underground, there is still a need for genetic diversity - that factor which enables some offspring to evolve to be different and possibly able to cope more effectively with changing conditions. So seeds are formed in the same way as in other types of plant.

In order to encourage regrowth it helps to know that, together with water, the roots also take in nutrients from the soil. These are part of the 're-inflating' process and we can assist by giving the plants a feed rich in potash. The daffodil in the bulb glass is unlikely to be able to rebuild for next year because of the lack of necessary nutrient in tapwater.

We tend to relate bulbs to spring, but there are species available for throughout the summer (Galtonia, lily, iris, gladiolus, cardiocrinum, etc.) and for different situations: Naturalised, many species can be left to their own devices, and some are suitable for rockeries and containers, even hanging baskets. So look beyond King Alfred daffodils to the myriad selection lying beyond.

It is a little known fact that daffodils are extremely useful tools in the highly fraught matter of sex education. My own five year old  son was sitting munching his cornflakes thoughtfully when he came out with the perfect lead in:

"What are the yellow bits for in the middle of that flower, daddy", he asked, indicating the anthers of a daffodil in a vase, with his dripping spoon.

Well", I said, seeing the opportunity to open the subject which playground rumour had indicated fathers  broached on ones thirteenth birthday. Perhaps my father had heard the same mythical references to this birthday and  experienced the  anticipatory dread that I had, because somehow he never got round to it. "That yellow bit is the male part of the flower. It's called the 'anther' and produces powdery stuff named 'pollen'. What happens is that the pollen is moved by wind or rain splashes onto that forked bit which is the female part of the flower, or 'stigma'. Then it travels down the pollen tube in the middle of the stigma, until it reaches the eggs which  are situated at the base, here", I indicated the position of the ovary. "The pollen is the last piece of the jig-saw puzzle that is the egg, finishing it so that it becomes a seed. Its a bit like what was happening with the frogs in the garden". We had watched a couple of frogs mating in the pond, where I explained that the male was clinging to the back of the female in order to fertilize the eggs as they were laid.
I sat back, pleased with myself but dubious as to how much had actually gone in. A few minutes later I decided to find out.

"Would you like to explain to me what goes on in the daffodil flower, son", I asked.

"Yes", he said, easily. "Yellow stuff called pollen is given off by that bit", here he indicated the anthers. It moves down the centre of that middle part". Here he actually managed to recall the name of the stigma, with a bit of prompting. "Then it stops when it gets to the egg".

"That's fantastic son", I enthused, glowing with pride. "What happens then?"

"Well", he said, in a confidential way, "you get millions of tadpoles, daddy".

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