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But my brother and I also heard stories about their hidden lives: their characters and their relationships – with each other, with animals and fungi, and with people. I loved secrets, and although my mother was no professional botanist, she always had in her handbag a magnifying glass that she used to examine and marvel at minuscule details.
Decades later, as a trustee of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew – perhaps the most biodiverse spot on the planet, and one that’s studded with hidden gems – I was able to accompany various botanical expeditions. They were the inspiration for this world tour.
There is much to captivate us in the riotous, and often bizarre, plant world; the sheer ingenuity that plants use to distribute their pollen, spores and seeds – the contraptions that launch them into the air, and the rewards to insects and animals that deliver them with precision.
Some plants act honestly and reward the suppliers of those services, but others dissemble and cheat, and even lure, kill and digest. While you enjoy these remarkable plants, spare a thought for the hundreds of thousands of others that also warrant our attention and our protection.
ENGLAND: NETTLE (Urtica dioica)
The nettle’s separate male and female plants are an understated couple. Trusting their pollen to insects rather than the wind, they have no need for gaudy blooms, instead forming garlands of subtle blossom.
Stinging nettles have serrated, heart-shaped leaves and stems are covered in hairs – trichomes – many of which are tiny, glass-like and sting. Brush against them and a microscopic globule at the top of each hair snaps off, leaving hypodermic needles to inject irritants, causing itching and burning.
Dock leaves, which often grow nearby and are commonly used to alleviate the pain, keep us occupied, cool the skin and perhaps even conjure soothing memories of a reassuring parent if nothing else. Nettles thrive on phosphaterich soil, colonising the margins of crop fields and following the phosphates we ourselves accrete – in ash from fires, in our waste and in our bones.
The banks of castle moats remain cloaked in nettles, feeding on the persistent minerals from sewage and refuse hundreds of years old. They thrive in churchyards, and the sites of ancient settlements, and have revealed the location of bodies. There is something very British about the stinging nettle, partly for its eccentricity, but also for its contribution of a little mild peril to our innocuous green and pleasant land.
MADAGASCAR: VANILLA (Vanilla planifolia)
An orchid that grows as a climbing vine, vanilla is native to Central American tropical forests, where it can grow 100 feet high using trees for support. Until the mid-nineteenth century, when it was planted in other hot and humid places, the main source was Mexico, where discerning Aztecs cultivated it to flavour their cocoa. The largest grower in the world is now Madagascar, whose climate and low labour costs suit vanilla production.
In restrained shades of yellow, cream and pale green, its hornshaped flowers smell faintly of cinnamon and are pollinated in their native habitat by hummingbirds and Melipona bees. These species live only in Central America, so everywhere else, each flower must be artificially and individually pollinated by hand. The blooms open for just one day, so vines are searched every morning for flowers.
The pollination technique still used today was developed in 1841 by Edmond Albius, a 12-year-old boy born into slavery in Réunion in the Indian Ocean: a sliver of bamboo is used to pierce the membrane separating the male and female parts of the flower, and pollen is transferred by squeezing the two parts together, known as “consummating the marriage”.
Within a day, the thick green base of the flower swells, and over the following nine months it matures into a thin pod the length of a hand. Vanilla is such a valuable spice, second only to saffron, growers often incise each pod with their own code to deter thieves.
NETHERLANDS: TULIP (Tulipa spp)
In the few wild species of tulip that have evolved to be pollinated by beetles rather than relying on the wind or other flying insects, the flowers are scarlet. Otherwise, tulips offer splashes of sunshine yellow on the semi-arid hills of central Asia, from where migrating tribes brought them to present-day Turkey in the Middle Ages.
The petals of some tulips have patches of microscopic ridges whose structure creates an iridescent halo of blue and ultraviolet light to which bees are especially sensitive, but which we perceive only as a subtle shimmer. Tulips take their name from the Persian word for ‘turban’, the shape of which resembles the flower’s bud.
By the late sixteenth century tulips had reached the Netherlands, and plant breeders set about creating gaudy hybrids, some infected with viruses that caused elaborate streaking on the petals. The combination of rarity and public interest led to ‘tulip mania’; bulbs changed hands for increasingly ridiculous sums until in 1637 after a three-year speculative frenzy the bubble burst.
PAKISTAN: HENNA (Lawsonia inermis)
A heat-loving shrub or small tree of the Middle East and southern Asia, henna succeeds in poor, arid soil by dropping its leaves in drought and surging back into life when rain returns. Its sprays of little white or pink-tinged flowers have a light bouquet, green and floral on the air but up close they carry a sensual undertone. Attar of henna, an extract of the flowers, is an expensive perfumier’s ingredient.
Henna’s otherwise unmemorable leaves are the source of one of the oldest cosmetics, used in ancient Egypt 3,500 years ago for body art. Powdering the leaves and making a paste with water and dash of lemon starts a chemical reaction that makes lawsone, the chemical name for the dye. Painted onto skin, hair or nails, it binds to proteins to produce an orange-brown colour.
IRAN: DAMASK ROSE (Rosa x damascena)
Roses are prickly shrubs with confusing ancestry and myriad varieties – wild, cultivated and hybridized. Many flowers, whose colour and fragrance evolved to entice pollinators, even have petals faced with microscopic conical cells to help bees in the breeze get a grip.
But some highly bred roses rely on us to propagate them; their blooms have several layers of petals that win horticultural prizes but barricade insects from nectar and pollen, rendering natural pollination impossible. Flowers send signals to various creatures, but for a long time human beings have used the rose to signal to one another.
Roses were twined over the triumphal banners of Roman armies, and Nero had swaggering banquets so jammed with blossoms that the smell was overwhelming. The tall, open bushes of the stunningly fragrant pink damask rose, grown in Bulgaria, Turkey and central Iran, are the main source of flavourings and scent.
Rose water, which is produced in quantity by boiling petals in water and condensing the vapour, is used in regional confectionery such as Turkish delight.
However, attar, the fabulously concentrated oil of roses coveted by perfumiers, requires Herculean effort to produce: 7,000 blooms gathered at their early-morning peak and distilled the same day yield just a teaspoonful of oil.
ETHIOPIA: COFFEE (Coffea arabica)
The little evergreen coffee tree began life somewhere near the forested mountains of southwestern Ethiopia, and its elliptical leaves with crinkled edges, shiny and dark above and pastel-pale underneath, still prefer shade.
In full flower, coffee is a spell-binding but ephemeral joy; for just a couple of days, thousands of delicate white blossoms can festoon a single tree. The smoothly oval fruits ripen to pillar-box red; their thin layer of edible flesh tastes of watermelon and apricot and surrounds a pair of seeds that are the familiar coffee ‘beans’.
More than 1,000 years ago, thanks to genius or good fortune, beans were roasted, pounded and added to hot water. The resulting fineflavoured, stimulating brew spread via Yemen throughout the world.
The story goes that in about 1600 coffee’s association with Islam caused Vatican officials to dismiss it as “Satan’s latest trap”, but Pope Clement VIII supposedly gave coffee his blessing because it would have been “a shame to let infidels have sole use of it”. The coffee tree didn’t develop caffeine for us. When its leaves drop, their caffeine leaches into the soil, impeding rival plants.
ESTONIA: DANDELION (Taraxacum officinale)
Perhaps dandelions are just too common to be appreciated properly. Their flower heads, composed of dozens of individual florets, create pretty patches, or even carpets, of intense yellow to temperate open fields and verges, and punctuate the monotonous green of garden lawns.
Often regarded as weeds, they certainly spread easily. Dandelion stems, and especially roots, contain sticky white latex that coagulates to seal any wounds from infection. Dandelion latex and the latex from rubber trees are remarkably similar.
In the 1930s, the Russians planted 260 square miles of dandelions in eastern Europe and successfully produced rubber from them. After World War Two, with the Far Eastern rubber supply stabilised, dandelion rubber became uneconomical.
Recently, however, with increasing pressure on tropical forests, research in Europe and the United States has focused on breeding high-yielding Russian dandelion, and tyres of dandelion rubber are already on the market. The French still use it for salad greens, for ‘coffee’ made from the roots and for cramaillotte, a tangy tan-coloured jelly from the flowers.
GIANT TIMBER BAMBOO (Phyllostachys Reticulata)
Sugar cane may be a stunningly tall grass, but it is drawrfed by many of the 1,200 or so species of bamboo – the biggest grasses of all – that are found around the world, especially in warm, wet climates.
The giant timber bamboo, native to China, is awesome. Emerging vertically from a circular splay of roots partially above the ground, the individual stems, or ‘culms’, can soar to 80 feet, and in ideal conditions can grow more than three feet a day.
For some people a bamboo forest, with its deadened sound and implausibly tall, uniformly parallel culms, has a calming and cathedral-like quality; others have the uncomfortable feeling of being trapped in a vast natural cage.
Bamboos usually clone themselves, reproducing asexually from underground stems, but just occasionally – after several decades, in the case of the giant bamboo – they blossom. A profusion of tiny, inconspicuous flowers form muted tresses in tan and khaki, remarkable only for their rarity.
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