Tuesday, June 23, 2015

by the roadside

Nectaroscordum siculum

A large colony of Honey Garlic (Nectaroscordum siculum), in a shady spot beside the M4 westbound, near Chippenham, Wilts.

Identifying plants at 70 mph tends to be a bit approximate.  Every so often, over the past fifteen years of commuting,  I'd get a flash of a strange group of what looked like a cross between bulrush and a giant cocksfoot. I never pinned down exactly where this was, and sometimes I even wondered if I'd dreamt the whole thing up. (Evidently, the plants are not noticeable for most of the year.)

When I spied the colony again last week, my curiosity finally got the better of me, and I determined to find a way to get closer. That turned out to be easy. Exit at Jct 17 (2 miles up the road), take the road to Sutton Benger, then from there the road to Seagry. Handy lay-by just before you cross the motorway. The plants are just beneath you.

On June 21st 2015, the flower-heads looked extraordinary, as weird as a Cappadocian landscape.

(When I was on the spot I assumed that the upright pinnacles were "buds", i.e. yet to flower, but I've since been told that these were post-flowering. In Nectaroscordum the flowers are upright in bud, drooping when open, then upright again in fruit.)  

And of course seeing the plants in such quantity and in wild surroundings makes them look even more impressive. This morning they were humming with bees and the smell of garlic.

The flowering stems are up to five feet tall and appear to have no problem thrusting through dense bramble-cover.

Nectaroscordum siculum is a plant of the Mediterranean region (from S. France to Turkey), where it grows in damp, shady woods. In Northern Europe it has been grown as a garden bulb since the sixteenth century. In the UK it's infrequently naturalized, mostly in the south. (It's been known for many years in the Avon Gorge.)

Considering how many botanists must have driven past here, it's a bit surprising that the site doesn't seem to have been recorded before.

Flower colour-ranges: red, pink-and-green, and almost white. The flowers are popular with bumble-bees. 

According to Richard Dadd, the flowers "of subsp. siculum [the western form] are predominantly a dull greenish red, and those of supsp. bulgaricum [the eastern form] are predominantly a dull greenish cream tinged with pink". Concerning the latter, Sell and Murrell add:  "with green mid-vein, red inside near the base". 

So maybe this is ssp. bulgaricum, but I'm not claiming that with any confidence.  

Stems. Round (or terete, if you prefer), about a centimeter in diameter. 

A curious thing: I couldn't see any leaves, the stems appeared to come naked straight out of the ground. 

When I visited my Mum and Dad a couple of days later, I was astonished to find Nectaroscordum siculum in their garden and to see the stems sheathed in large keeled leaves. An online horticulture book confirmed: the leaves appear in the spring and fade after flowering. But maybe this depends on the variety. I've since been told of other garden Nectaroscordums whose leaves have disappeared by flowering time.  

(On my return visit a couple of weeks later, I realized that the leaves had shrivelled to a brownish membrane adhering to the stem - you can make it out in the photo above.) 

Nectaroscordum is a small genus: just a single species. Or two, if you give ssp. bulgaricum specific status, as some people do.  Or none, if you lump them into Allium, as has been done in the past, and as there are fresh moves afoot to do again (according to the Wikipedia Allium article).

To a lay-person there would seem to be features that set Nectaroscordum apart e.g. the remarkable activity of the flower-stalks.

Below: Re-visit a couple of weeks later, on 5th July. Fruits maturing. 



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