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'


  1. Hi John, loving reading your blog!
    I'm about have our back garden redone. It's going to take about a hundred square meters of turf (plus the topsoil needed underneath). I was wondering if you could give me any general advice and also where you would recommend getting that much topsoil and turf to reduce costs :-)
    Bren (Newell)

  2. Hi Bren,
    Nice to hear from you - hope you are well.
    The cheapest way to create a lawn is by sowing seed and you can do this during the summer as long as it is watered in dry times. However this takes about a year to establish and turfing is a much faster alternative. As to whether you need to buy topsoil, this depends on what is there already. A well-draining soil, free of large stones and rubbish, is basically all you need. Raking in a balanced fertilizer like blood fish and bone or Growmore a few days before laying will supplement any lack of nutrient lacking in the soil.
    If new topsoil is required, I used to deal with a firm called Huperade. They are situated at Bridge House Farm, Brooks Drive, Timperley and they also supply turf. I found them to be very reliable and helpful.
    If you need further advice, why not give me a ring and I'll pop round.

  3. Hi John, thanks for your advice (sorry for not replying sooner - been on holiday!)
    I think we do want turf rather than waiting a year. We just want to give the kids somewhere to play out :-)
    At the moment the garden has paving stones over it and I think a layer of sand underneath so I would imagine that would need covering in at least an inch of top soil before the turf is put down.
    I'll give Huperade a call and see what their prices are like :-)