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

1 comment:

  1. I can't find anyone that is selling the Dischidia Pectinoides. I want to buy a couple of them. Any place you know of where I can buy them? Thank you for any help. I live in California.