Friday, August 25, 2006

Circaea lutetiana

The wood is a doorway. Things come out of it, rarely and devastatingly. When you walk in, you immediately know that it's the beginning of endlessness, even when (rationally speaking) the wood is small and bordered on all sides. In other parts of the world the wood is literally endless, that's to say you could start walking and know you'd die before you got to the end.

It's summer and the wood appears empty. This plant, never eye-catching, has run to seed. You think nothing of it, stepping through the woodland. The plant, however, thinks of you, and it posts discreet fruits on your socks. It mainly works with smaller animals such as pheasants and foxes, which is why the fruits (though not the flowers) are pointed downwards.

The resulting beautiful shape of the fruiting stem is described elsewhere as "herringbone". I admire that effort, but the truth is that plants as a matter of course use patterns of three-dimensional rotational symmetry that have no real analogy in animal form; and therefore, we have no common-language words for them and a difficulty even visualizing them. When you look at these photos remind yourself that it's a 3-dimensional raceme.

I should have said rotational a-symmetry, because although you can see there's a genetic predisposition towards a symmetric and optimal plan, plants need to be plastic to accommodate the reality that a plant's microclimate is unsymmetrical - because of the sun's track if nothing else -; but there usually is something else; the shade cast by a nearby tree-trunk, the habitual routes of the wind... Thus in this case if I twiddle the fruit-stem I can see there's a way of holding it that unexpectedly reveals that there's one plane that nearly all the fruits avoid.

On cameras the macro feature is conventionally indicated by a flower-symbol. Flowers are in fact among the things we like photographing most. The flower is the part of a plant that is designed for eyes. But when you examine other aspects of plants, photographs (being 2-dimensional) are surprisingly unhelpful. That's one reason grasses and sedges have such a bad reputation for being hard to identify. If you are shown them by someone who knows (which is how all farmers learn about their crops, forage and weeds) then the difficulties disappear, but you need to go round and about, and examine them by touching and turning in ways that virtuality hampers.

The circæa resembles the cultivated trychnon in appearance. It has a small swarthy flower, a diminutive seed, like millet, growing in small horn-shaped pods, and a root half a foot in length, generally triple or fourfold, white, odoriferous, and hot in the mouth. It is found growing upon rocks exposed to the sun. An infusion of it is prepared with wine, and administered for pains and affections of the uterus: to make it, three ounces of the pounded root should be steeped in three sextarii of wine a day and a night. This potion is effectual also for bringing away the after-birth. The seed of this plant, taken in wine or hydromel, diminishes the milk in nursing women.

This is from Pliny the Elder's Natural History, Book 27 Ch 38. That mouthful of a name "Enchanter's Nightshade" was first used by Gerard and alluded to a theory of the Flemish botanist De L'Obel that this plant was Pliny's Circaea and moreover that this name implied magical powers far beyond the modest uses that Pliny mentions: the enchanter therefore is Circe, who could change men into swine. The Linnaean name makes the same allusion (lutetiana=of Paris). How De L'Obel explained away Pliny's references to horn-shaped pods and sunny rocks I really can't imagine. But magical associations, though their origin may be both mundane and questionable, once they come into existence have a way of clinging on and becoming real; that is, real in a magical way, not real in an unmagical way.



At 7:06 am, Blogger Vincent said...

Loved this post with its celebration of the least showy of plants and botanical-aesthetic appreciation.

Your point about symmetry/asymmetry is precisely one which has been bothering me as I observe trees and other plants with the intention of sketching them. I don't want to capture their two-dimensional image as a camera does but understand how they grow, so that I can draw according to the template of the plant's own imagining of itself.

You have pointed out that its adaptation to environment is as important as that template, but still I would like to paint a given species of tree with something of its perfect three-dimensional rotational symmetry. Not to interfere with nature but to help in the magical proces of seeing nature as a living force and plants as creatures which constantly move. But I also want to do this with clouds.

At 11:51 pm, Blogger Edmund Hardy said...

I find it essential to have a very large grass book with at least two full size photographs of each grass, whereas a sort of "accounting" system works with mushrooms and butterflies etc. so a small, categorised book will do.

At the moment, I like looking at fatty, chubby mosses.

At 2:08 pm, Anonymous Christopher Hedley said...

Thank you

I stumbled across your website. It is a pure joy.



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