COLONISERS AND INNOVATORS PART II

Diarmuid Breatnach

(Reading time: 5 mins)

In Part I, we remarked that “Plants are pioneers, colonisers, innovators and builders at least comparable to the animal kingdom, to which they are related and …. with a superior record.” We followed their emergence from the waters and their colonising of land, along with various strategies they developed for their new environment. Now we watch them constructing their very own environments and adapting to some of the most challenging climes of the earth.

ENVIRONMENT-BUILDERS

          Most plants have leaves, which is where the photosynthesis takes place; they are in fact sunlight collectors and the plants deploy them to best effect to catch the available sun. Quite a late development, they were flanges on the stems first before becoming appendages further out of the plant’s main body. Most leaves are intricately veined and contain many different layers and parts and although it is within them that photosynthesis takes place, strangely they are mostly short-lived and in cold seasons, even in perennial plants, all but the conifers let them fall.

The greater the volume of material created by plants, the more there was to decompose with their deaths or seasonal decline. Bacteria, already long existent on the planet, evolved to feed on this detritus and break it down into soil, which the same plants or others could turn to their advantage as a medium in which to anchor but also from which to draw nutrients. Other organisms evolved to live on and break down cellulose too, the main building material of plants: fungi, gastropods like snails and slugs, woodlice, termites …..

The plants, with the help of bacteria and other organisms, were creating the environment below them!

But they were and are doing more than that: they are also creating an environment immediately around them. The most concentrated examples are perhaps rain forests, tropical, temperate or cold-climate, retaining a surrounding moisture-laden air, in which not only the local tree species thrive but also providing ideal environments for ferns, algae, orchids and epiphytes and, of course, mosses.

Inside a tropical rainforest.
(Photo source: Internet)
Temperate Rainforest — parts of the Wicklow hills and valleys would almost qualify.
(Photo source: Wikipeda)

Away from forests, sphagnum moss creates a mini-atmosphere around itself and as generations die, their bodies create a spongy moisture-laden medium. This bog is quite capable of existing on an incline, with much of the water being retained by the vegetation and ‘soil’, as may be seen in a number of examples in Ireland, such as parts of the Dublin and Wicklow Mountains.

Close-up of sphagnum moss, creator of its own environment and changer of landscape.
(Photo source: Internet)

 

Plants, especially trees, discharge oxygen into the air and consume carbon dioxide during the daytime, for which reason they are sometimes called “the lungs of the world”. They have not only created an environment for themselves, below, around and above but also for so many other life-forms – including ourselves.

LEARNING TO LIVE IN DIFFERENT CLIMES

          Creating one’s climate isn’t always possible and, when it’s not, adaptation is the other option. Plants that adapted to grow in arid areas developed fleshy ‘leaves’ and often stalks, in which to store water and also sometimes long tap roots to find that water. But extensive shallow root networks are good too, to collect the occasional rain water that is quickly absorbed into the soil or otherwise evaporates. The “pores” on leaves through which plants absorb carbon dioxide and allow the gas-exchange necessary for photosynthesis (stomates) also permit evaporation of water, hence many dry-condition plants have fewer of them. Some only open to collect carbon dioxide in the cool of the night and store it for use on the following day. Plants grow trichomes, tiny bristles, underneath their leaves but some arid-dwellers grow them also on top of their leaves; these ‘trap’ a layer of air that prevents or slows evaporation.

Arid-adapted plants, SW USA (Photo source: Internet)

In very wet areas, plants learned to remain active by a number of strategies. Of course they originally came from aquatic environments but for some of them, returning there again after adapting to dry land, produced challenges (think of the changes necessary for land mammals to evolve into seals, otters, dolphins and whales). Nevertheless we have lillies growing in shallow water with wide floating leaves, reeds with upright blade-like leaves growing inside the water margins, thin spears of rushes in damp and water-logged land. That too is the preferred environment of some other plants and grasses, including the rice plant. And of the willows, alders and hazels growing on the banks and stabilising them. In the tropics and semi-tropics, mangroves do a similar job to willows but on a much grander scale – and they tolerate seawater too.

Reeds and two different species of willow on the Royal Canal, Dublin. (Photo source: D.Breatnach)

The alder, a tree with a high toleration of water around its roots, is thought to have been the major post-glacial coloniser of Ireland, following the retreating ice across the land. It is the only native tree which though not an evergreen produces cones, an indication of its early adaptation to cold climate. Cones, when closed, protect the seeds inside against continual freezing and thawing and, when the cones begin to dry and automatically open in spring and summer, allow the seeds inside to drop out to the ground, to be carried by river or on the wind. A closed cone collected and brought home will open as it dries; shake it then and the seeds will fall out. Alder timber, incidentally, remains waterproof for centuries, witness the wooden piles in Venice.

Close view of alder cones and leaves from tree on the Royal Canal, Dublin north city centre. (Photo source: D.Breatnach)

Adapting to cold seasons required protective materials, structures and timing. The deciduous trees (and it is worth noting that many trees have both a deciduous and an evergreen version for different climes) shed their leaves and close down for the winter, the sap retreating down to the roots. Were the sap to remain in the exposed branches it would freeze, expand and destroy them. The leaves drop because they no longer receive anything from the tree; it is going into a kind of hibernation, in preparation for the coming winter.

Many of the conifers have downward-sloping branches, to allow most of the snow to slide off, rather than break the branches with its weight. People who live in areas with heavy snowfall also tend to live under sharply sloping roofs. The “leaves” of the conifers are small, narrow and hard so that most snow falls through them and are also covered in a waxy polymer to withstand freezing. The plant cells can be emptied of water to prevent freezing but a dense waxy residue keeps them open for refilling. So, of course, they have to be tolerant of dehydration. Concentration of sugars also lowers the freezing point and small flexible conduits for water resist the formation of large ice bubbles that can burst those “pipes”.

The “needles” on pine twigs. (Photo sourced: Internet)
The downward direction of the branches of many conifers ensures slide off by snow when it reaches a certain weight — but long before the branch might break. (Photo source: Internet)
Red and white spruce in snow. Though the branches incline slightly upward, they are very flexible and will bend and dislodge the snow overlaying them long before the branch is in danger of snapping.
(Photo source: Internet)

COMPLAINT TO DAVID ATTENBOROUGH

Dear Mr. Attenborough,

We wish to draw your attention to what we perceive as a serious bias in your series The Natural World, a bias which is as unjust as it is unproffessional and, indeed, unscientific.

In your otherwise excellent film documentary series The Natural World you depict the wonders of our world and the many levels of interaction and responses to different environments within it, of plant and animal, of eater and eaten, prey and predator.

However, when any of us appear upon the scene, your narrative voice drops in volume as if to indicate the arrival of something sinister, the evil presence in this otherwise natural world. We are neither sinister nor evil, Mr. Attenborough – we are an integral part of this natural world, the same as all the rest.

You seem to delight to show footage of us pursuing the young calves and fawns of grazers, thereby seeking the sympathy of your human audiences for their plight and, in turn, hostility towards us. No doubt the omnivores among your human audience are able to disassociate themselves mentally from the relative immaturity states of lamb, veal, piglet, pullet, egg and sprat in their diet. But much more to the point – do we not have young too? And how do you – or your sympathetic audiences – imagine that our young get fed? Or what do you or they imagine stands between our cubs and dying of starvation?

We note also that it is not all higher predators that you depict in this way – not of course humans but not the great cats either. We laugh when we see you depict the lion, “the king of the jungle” as some kind of majestic monarch. Those of us in the African veldt know well that most of what he eats is what our brethren have chased and brought down before he has bullied us off what is ours. And the rest of his food is killed only by the females in his group. Among us, on the contrary, males and females all take part in the planning, the chase and the kill.

As a naturalist you know that all predators play a part in the balance of nature and generally cull the weak and unwary, strengthening the overall health of the prey species. As a naturalist, we would not expect you to have this bias against us and can only wonder whether perhaps as a child you had an unpleasant experience with a domesticated canid. If so we hope that you can put it behind you.

We trust you will consider what we have to say and hope that you will change your depiction of us in any future series.

Sincerely,

Wolves, Dingoes, Wild Dogs, Jackals and Hyenas

on behalf of Canids of the Wild (CaW)

A Grey Wolf adult ‘cuddles’ a pup (Source: Internet).

 

 

Three Dingo pups — one of them camera shy. (Source photo: Internet)
“Parents have to work hard to feed a big family.  We hope you’ll think about that, Mr. Attenborough.  Goodbye for now ….. C’mon, kids.”
(Photo source: Internet)

EXPLORERS, COLONISTS AND INNOVATORS

Diarmuid Breatnach

(Reading time: 15 mins.)

When plants first “crept” out of the sea and freshwater on to land, it was a perilous undertaking. The shore and in particular the sea shore is a very hostile environment, subject to battering and scouring action of wave, wind and wind-driven sand, alternating between inundation and desiccation and even both in the same day. Those early plants were not just explorers but colonisers and innovators; many died but those that survived changed the world, its very earth and atmosphere.

          There are about 320,000 known species of plants, a total that does not include most hybrids, sub-species or selectively-bred varieties. Botanists exclude from the term “plants” some of the green and all of the brown sea algae as well as the fungi and bacteria. The vast majority of plants are coloured some variety of green because of the action of photosynthesis inside them, which attracts the blue and red ends of the light spectrum but does not absorb green, which is why we see them in that colour. Some 260,000 to 290,000 species produce seeds but algae does not. Mosses and ferns, which are plants, produce spores instead, in common with fungi (which however are not plants).

We study life to place it in an order, to simplify understanding but life diversifies into a huge array.

Plants are pioneers, colonisers, innovators and builders at least comparable to the animal kingdom, to which they are related and, I would argue, with a superior record.

LAND HO!

          Plants first “crept” out of the sea and freshwater during the Ordovician period, around 470 million years ago; they were non-vascular (without “veins”) and without roots, like mosses and liverworts. It was a perilous undertaking. The shore and in particular the sea shore is a very hostile environment, subject to battering and scouring action of wave, wind and wind-driven sand, alternating between inundation and desiccation and even both in the same day. Plants on land carry the genes of the early explorers, pioneers, survivors – high in endurance, adaptability and innovation.

Brown & Green Algaes in shallow seawater (the brown uses floats to stay upright but the green doesn’t need it. Just almost out of view is a yellow lichen colonising the stone sea-wall. (Photo source: D.Breatnach)

But why abandon the seas, lakes and rivers in the first place? Presumably there is always a pressure in nature to explore niches and new territory, thereby escaping pressures of population, predation, competition and consumption of available nutrition … And while some life-forms specialise in particular environments and nature also pressures in that direction, ultimately that is a highly dangerous strategy, general adaptability to food sources and environments being the best bets for long-term survival and multiplying – as shown by homo sapiens, for example.

First ashore, establishing a literal (and littoral :-)) beachhead, might have been a kind of algal slime. Perhaps it survived only while wet, died, was replaced by other migrants …. but probably at some point some carried survival pockets within them, able to regenerate when moistened anew. Or it might have been some moss or liverwort, later a branched and trailing plant but dealing with the same problems and developing a similar strategy for survival.

We can imagine a conversation, in which one plant organism on the shore questions another:

It gets so dry here I feel I am going to wither and blow away.”

Just hang on there. We’ll get rain soon. And there’s always dew at night.”

I can hardly wait. Remind me why we didn’t stay where were were, with all that lovely moisture.”

Getting eaten by other life-forms. Competition for light.”

Oh, yeah. Sometimes I forget.”

REACHING DOWN, STANDING UP

          In lakes, plants could simply float upright in the water reaching towards the light (and avoiding being covered in sand or silt) as many water plants do today, or on the surface, as algal mats and bloom do, or for example the various types of “duckweed” that not only float but multiply to cover the whole pond surface. In the sea and in fast-flowing rivers however, fixed plants needed to grasp surfaces and developed means of doing so; but these were not roots as such – more like anchors. Later, as they colonised the land, most plants did indeed develop roots not only to anchor themselves in the ground or to cling to difficult surfaces but also to bring up water, the tap roots for this purpose often going quite deep. Roots also brought up nutrients.

The roots also made it possible to cling to inhospitable surfaces, including even the perpendicular or overhanging and also to exploit cracks and fissures by tunneling into them. In the course of this activity, plants changed their immediate physical environment, by helping to break down stone and also by trapping material blowing in the wind.

Buddleia bush clinging to a wall in Dublin (Photo source: D.Breatnach)

But why set up home clinging to a cliff or today, a wall or a chimney stack? Well, plenty of sunshine, for one thing, no competition for another! Of course, not much soil there or even none at all for nutrition – but still, most things in life are a trade-off, right? How did the seeds get up there in the first place? Wind … or birdshit.

Ivy making its way up a tree trunk.
(Photo source: Internet)

Of course, some of the colonisers developed other ways to cling to surfaces, as was the case with the mosses, lichens and liverworts. And they also trapped material and contributed their own to it as they died, regenerated, died …. But without roots that only works when you keep low and hug the ground. If you want to grow tall to reach for sunlight and if you want to exploit soil, you need roots.

Plants at first fed almost exclusively on sunlight it seems, broken down into sugars by chlorophyll in photosynthesis. But those that developed roots also, probably as anchors to prevent themselves being blown or washed away, or to help them grow tall and compete with other plants to catch the sun, learned to draw up water and to feed on nutrients in the soil – phosphates, nitrogen, potassium etc. Some, like the legumes, beans, peas and gorse for example, even learned to extract one of the gases that make up air, nitrogen and, with the help of a bacteria, to fix and store nodes of it around their roots.

Once you have roots, why not grow stems, branches, trunks, whereby you can reach higher and higher, for more unimpeded sunlight and outpacing the competition perhaps. Your building material will need to be tougher, especially for trees, bushes and shrubs, to bear the weight, withstand the winds …. but flexible enough to stretch as you grow. Having the ideal material already in cellulose, all that is necessary is some kind of hardening process. A plant might explain to puzzled humans: “Think of keratin and how the same basic substance has been used to make stuff as varied as feathers, fur, human hair and beetle carapaces.”

If you were a plant that had learned to spread fast over distances to catch the sun, covering ground and clambering over obstacles, you might find one day that there is another way to reach towards the sun – climb up the plants that are reaching up there! Don’t invest in slow build-up and hardening of cellulose – go for fast growth and gripping or winding ability instead, or turn some of your leaves into grasping tendrils. Some climbers such as lianas in the tropics and ivy and honeysuckle in Ireland, are perpetual climbers, remaining in position throughout the year (although the honeysuckle will lose most of its leaves in the Autumn) and extending during the growing seasons. Others climb only in the Spring and Summer and die afterwards, for example bindweed and runner-beans.

Runner Bean plants climbing a support structure (‘tower’) in a garden. (Photo source: Internet)

ENVIRONMENT-BUILDERS

          Most plants have leaves, which is where the photosynthesis takes place; they are in fact sunlight collectors and the plants deploy them to best effect to catch the available sun. Quite a late development, they were flanges on the stems first before becoming appendages further out of the plant’s main body. Most leaves are intricately veined and contain many different layers and parts and it is within them that photosynthesis takes place but strangely, they are mostly short-lived and in cold seasons even in perennial plants, with a few exception, all but the conifers let them fall.

The greater the volume of material created by plants, the more there was to decompose with their deaths or seasonal decline. Bacteria, already long existent on the planet, evolved to feed on this detritus and break it down into soil, which the same plants or others could turn to their advantage as a medium in which to anchor but also from which to draw nutrients. Other organisms evolved to live on and break down cellulose too, the main building material of plants: fungi, gastropods like snails and slugs, woodlice, termites …..

The plants, with the help of bacteria and other organisms, were creating the environment below them!

But they were and are doing more than that: they are also creating an environment immediately around them. The most concentrated examples are perhaps rain forests, tropical, temperate and cold-climate, retaining a surrounding moisture-laden air, in which not only the local tree species thrive but also providing ideal environments for ferns, algae, orchids and epiphytes and, of course, mosses.

Away from forests, sphagnum moss creates a mini-atmosphere around itself and as generations die, their bodies create a spongy moisture-laden medium. This bog is quite capable of existing on an incline, with much of the water being retained by the vegetation and ‘soil’, as may be seen in a number of examples in Ireland, such as parts of the Dublin and Wicklow Mountains.

Close-up of sphagnum moss, creator of its own environment and changer of landscape.
(Photo source: Internet)

 

Temperate Rainforest, Fraga do Eume park, Galicia, Spanish state. Despite the deforestation of Ireland during centuries of British occupation, areas such as parts of Wicklow arguably qualify for the description “rainforest”.
(Photo source: Wikipedia)

 

Plants, especially trees, discharge oxygen into the air and consume carbon dioxide during the daytime, for which reason they are sometimes called “the lungs of the world”. They have not only created an environment for themselves, below, around and above but also for so many other life-forms – including ourselves.

LEARNING TO LIVE IN DIFFERENT CLIMES

          Plants that adapted to grow in arid areas developed fleshy ‘leaves’ and often stalks, in which to store water and sometimes long tap roots to find that water. But extensive shallow root networks are good too, to collect the occasional rain water that is quickly absorbed into the soil or otherwise evaporates. The “pores” on leaves through which plants absorb carbon dioxide and allow the gas-exchange necessary for photosynthesis (stomates) also permit evaporation of water, hence many dry-condition plants have fewer of them. Some only open to collect carbon dioxide in the cool of the night and store it for use on the following day. Plants grow trichomes, tiny bristles, underneath their leaves but some arid-dwellers grow them also on top of their leaves; these ‘trap’ a layer of air that prevents or slows evaporation.

In very wet areas, plants learned to remain active by a number of strategies. Of course they originally came from aquatic environments but for some of them, returning there again after adapting to dry land, produced challenges (think of the changes necessary for land mammals to evolve into seals, otters, dolphins and whales). Nevertheless we have lilies growing in shallow water with wide floating leaves, rushes with upright blade-like leaves growing inside the water margins, thin spears of rushes in damp and water-logged land. That too is the preferred environment of some other plants and grasses, including the rice plant. And of the willows, alders and hazels growing on the banks and stabilising them. In the tropics and semi-tropics, mangroves do a similar job to willows but on a much grander scale – and they tolerate seawater too.

Selection of waterside plants, reeds and different types of willow tree, growing along the Royal Canal, Dublin, yesterday. (Photo source: D.Breatnach)
Immature cones of the alder showing among leaves of the tree.
(Photo source: Internet)

The alder, a tree with a high toleration of water around its roots, is thought to have been the major post-glacial coloniser of Ireland, following the retreating ice across the land. It is the only native tree which though not an evergreen produces cones, an indication of its early adaptation to cold climate. Cones, when closed, protect the seeds inside against continual freezing and thawing and, when the cones begin to dry and automatically open in spring and summer, allow the seeds inside to drop out to the ground, to be carried by river or on the wind. A closed cone collected and brought home will open as it dries; shake it then and the seeds will fall out. Alder timber, incidentally, remains waterproof for centuries, witness the wooden piles in Venice.

Adapting to cold seasons required protective materials, structures and timing. The deciduous trees (and it is worth noting that many trees have both a deciduous and an evergreen version for different climes) shed their leaves and close down for the winter, the sap retreating down to the roots. Were the sap to remain in the exposed branches it would freeze, expand and destroy them. The leaves drop because they no longer receive anything from the tree; it is going into a kind of hibernation, in preparation for the coming winter.

Many of the conifers have downward-sloping branches, to allow most of the snow to slide off, rather than break the branches with its weight. People who live in areas with heavy snowfall also tend to live under sharply sloping roofs. The “leaves” of the conifers are small, narrow and hard so that most snow falls through them and are also covered in a waxy polymer to withstand freezing. The plant cells can be emptied of water to prevent freezing but a dense waxy residue keeps them open for refilling. So, of course, they have to be tolerant of dehydration. Concentration of sugars also lowers the freezing point and small flexible conduits for water resist the formation of large ice bubbles that can burst those “pipes”.

AWARENESS

          Seeds know which way is “up” and which is “down”, which is quite an amazing thing; the tap root of a seed, germinating in the dark, goes downwards while its shoot grows upward.

In fact, the plant seed also knows the right time to germinate – too early in many climes and it will be killed by frost, too late and it will have insufficient time to develop before the next cold period or will be unable to compete with other seeds that sprouted earlier, depriving the late-comer of sunlight and possibly nutrients. The decision is made by a number of factors feeding into a small cluster in the seed tip, consisting of preventative and initiator command centres. When the initiator section’s hormones exceed that of the preventative, it is time to germinate. Not very different from our brains’ decision-making process, is it?

Also, cut a living branch and often the plant will mobilise to produce one or more shoots at the cut-site. But should that cut be enclosed within soil, the tree or bush will produce roots instead – it ‘knows’ the difference. This knowledge the gardener takes advantage of when she “air-layers” a shrub or tree by nicking a branch, then covers the cut with soil wrapped in a plastic bag, waiting for a root to develop and then cutting the cloned sapling free, ready to plant.

Air-layering a branch, possibly from a a peach tree. The branch inside the wrapping has been cut, packed around with soil, to fool the plant into sending out a root.
(Photo source: Internet)

Without eyes, plants are also capable of detecting where the light is; if one places a climbing plant seedling in a dark cellar with a small window high above, the plant will climb towards the window, striving to reach the light. The sunflower and the flowers of some other plants turn towards the sun, following its progress across the sky. Many flowers, including those of the dandelions and daisies all around us at this time of year, close when the day ends. A “Swiss Cheese Plant” I once had managed to slip one of its suckers — like a long surface root — down the back out of sight and when I eventually discovered it, the sucker had gone under the carpet and had extended around six feet towards the window.

Of course, it may have been searching for moisture.

Plants can sense moisture and do go looking for it, something at which eucalypts are particularly adept. Unfortunately, this can cause problems for other trees and shrubs growing in the same area, as the eucalypts suck up the water from greater depths (the eucalypt doesn’t care however nor do some of its planters). During the severe drought in parts of the USA last year, it was reported that trees were breaking open water pipes with their roots to get at the precious liquid. It appears that the reports were mistaken but instead the roots were extending towards the detected moisture from leaks in the pipework. Of course, then the roots might widen the gap ….

Some plants at least are also ‘aware’ of being attacked, for example by an infestation of caterpillars. Those that have reserves of a defensive poison at their disposal are not only able to deploy it but also to communicate to other nearby trees of the same species, so that they too deploy the poison – before the caterpillars have even reached them! It is thought that the trees communicate underground, through their roots.

Plants also know when their offspring have reached enough numbers and a sufficiently advanced stage so as to put their energy into maturing them, rather than producing more growth or even more seeds. Presumably they receive a chemical signal when enough roses have bloomed, been fertilised and the rose hips, the fruit containing the seeds, are swelling. Likewise when the beans inside a runner-bean pod have swollen and will shortly be ready to burst the pod and drop to earth. Gardeners know how to fool the plants into continuing to produce for a longer period by “dead-heading” dying flowers and picking runner-bean pods when they are still very young.

THORNS, SPINES, POISONS, GAS – AND HELPERS

           Among the many features that plants have developed are an impressive array of defences. Filamentous algae, with low mass investment and constantly renewing, probably did not need defences nor perhaps did the plants that first came ashore. Defence against what, after all? But later, as soon as animal life began to develop on land …..

Here in the north-west of Europe we are familiar with thorns and spines on the trunks and branches of the rose and briar, blackberry, gooseberry, gorse, blackthorn and hawthorn. It is not always on the trunks and branches that the sharp spikes are to be found, as we are reminded by the prickly leaves of the thistles and holly. Thorny and spiny defences are repeated around the world on other plants from acacias to cacti and many others. Thorns stab, rip and tear but spines lodge in the skin and continue to irritate, some forming sites of infection.

Well at least you’re safe among grass, right? Not necessarily, for example the dune builder grasses, marram or beach grass, can cut the skin of mammals moving through it. In other parts of the world they have aptly-named ‘sword’ and ‘saw’ grasses. Some of these cut with a thin edge but many with tiny hair-like spines growing on the underside of grass blades, called trichomes, defend against herbivorous invertebrates but may also cause “grass itch” in some people.

Mostly, these are a defence against grazing animals or protection against the theft of the plants’ fruits. Other plants have developed poisons, which they employ not only against mammal and bird grazers but also against insects such as caterpillars (as commented earlier) and locusts; examples in Ireland are the foxglove and the deadly nightshade or belladonna, a relative of the tomato and potato. Another is the hemlock, a relative of the carrot, parsley and angelica plants – even its sap can burn your skin. An invasive shrub or small tree, the cherry laurel, carries arsenic within its wood, leaves and berries and can be seen in many gardens, parks and growing wild around much of Wicklow.

Belladonna or Deadly Nightshade plant in flower with some immature berries (ultimately rich purple colour).
(Photo source: Internet)

But trees have also been observed to emit chemical compounds that attract the enemies of parasites or grazers feeding on the trees.

Poisons can be employed against competing plants too, as does the hydrangea, a shrub with lovely luxuriant flowers in your garden (or indeed in a public park in Howth) but a seriously invasive plant in the wild as it eliminates its competition and grows unchecked. It does this by a relationship with a bacteria around its roots that produces a poison to kill competing vegetation. However, the native pine also produces an allelopathy in its discarded needles, inhibiting the germination of other plant seeds and growth – it is not only the blocking of sunlight that keeps pine forests so free of undergrowth.

The onion carries an aroma warning that rough handling of the bulb will produce a gas attack on eyes and nasal passages, as known to any who have handled them in food preparation.

Plants employ some poisons continually but others selectively, as in ripening seeds (for example in the seed pods of the laburnum) or in sensitive growing tips (for example the fiddleheads or curled growing tips of bracken, toxic to grazers). The daffodil is a lovely plant and safe to handle but digging up the bulbs and mistaking them for wild onions can have fatal consequences for the eater. And as we have seen elsewhere, leaves can become poisonous as trees mobilise chemicals from tree to tree when under attack by caterpillars.

Growing tips of the bracken fern, known as “fiddleheads” – poisonous to grazers.
(Photo source: Internet)

However, some plants welcome insects as protectors too, as for example with a species of ant that lives in some acacias and helps keep the tree free of pathogens.

When considering plant poisons we are reminded too of the stinging nettle, which introduces its defence to us in childhood, never to be forgotten. In North America, one would always remember a brush with its poison ivy. The Giant Hogweed, also a member of the carrot and parsley family but invasive to Ireland, causes a very painful rash following bare skin contact.

There are many localised wars going on out there.

FLAUNTING FLOWERS – AND FLIERS, SAILORS, ROLLERS AND HITCHHIKERS

          Along with all their other innovations, plants evolved some very impressive ones in procreation, particularly in dispersing the next generation. Pollen, a fine powdery substance that is the equivalent of mammal sperm could be and was spread by the wind. The development of the flower and blossom brought in a partnership with animal pollinators to greater efficiency. Attracted by nectar and to some extent pollen, both insects and some birds visited male plants flaunting their flowers and unconsciously picked up pollen which they deposited at another flower they visited, thereby soon fertilising female flowers.

Flowers were developed in a huge variety of shapes and colours in order to attract pollinators — and then came smell. Some botanists speculate that scent was first used by some plants to discourage insects and grazers which, if true, is amazing enough. To then go on to develop scent to attract pollinators is a leap that staggers the imagination. Flowers and blossoms using smell are particularly noticeable at dusk and night, a time when flowers are hardly visible, when presumably they are visited by moths.

A hive honey-been, one of the most common pollinators, approaching a flower (perhaps a dandelion’s) intending to collect nectar and perhaps pollen but will certainly collect the latter inadvertently. Note the collection bag on its legs.
(Photo source: Internet)

Early plants did not have seeds so the whole paraphernalia around them had to be developed from other existing parts with originally different functions (some of us could convert a bicycle, a machine for locomotion, into an electric power generator but still ….)

Behind the flowers of many species is a little node which when fertilised begins to swell and form a fruit, with the developing seeds inside — or single seed in the case of Prunus species, the plum family, for example. This is another amazing trick of the plant – it has produced attractive fruits, full of sugars when ripe, to attract animals (such as ourselves) to pick them and either discard the seeds as we eat the fruit or pass them through our gut to be deposited on earth — along with a handy dollop of manure. A botanist investigating the occurrence of isolated copses of trees on the grassy plains of the South American Pampas concluded that horses were eating the nuts of the parent trees some distance away then, as they travelled across the plains, at some point defecated with some intact nuts among their faeces: some years later – a grove of trees. Of course horses have only been in the Pampas for a few centuries and probably the other local grazers don’t eat saplings.

Nuts are also stored in different caches by some mammals and birds, for example here in Ireland by squirrels and magpies. They don’t always dig up all the stores later – perhaps they forget where some of them were – and in the spring, those nuts become saplings.

Well enough. But producing fruit and nuts is a lot of work and depends on the assistance of animals, especially mammals and birds, for dispersal. Some plants scorn to use them and instead employ the wind. Dandelions, thistles and many other plants send their seeds off on downy parachutes, often to land kilometres away. Some, like the sycamore, grow “wings” on their seeds which, when dry, spin away on the wind and not only that but when they strike mud are sometimes twisted by the wind on their “wing” to ‘screw’ the seed into the soil.

Many plants with pods, for example the legumes, will have their pods crack open when dry to “spill the beans” upon the soil. That is not good enough for the gorse or furze, the pods of which explode on a summer’s day, shooting the seeds away. One such day I sat among gorse bushes on Killiney Hill and was startled to hear what sounded like a weak pistol shot. Then another …. and another …. and all around me the bushes were shooting out their seeds, the lucky ones to create new bushlets (yes, I did just make up that word) the following year.

The casings of chestnuts, both edible and the ‘conker’ variety hit the ground, some cracking open as they do so and roll away from the tree. The casings of the edible ones are spiny, which no doubt afford the nuts inside some protection from being eaten (and trodden) until they are covered by fallen leaves or strike a root into the ground. Again, the lucky ones will become saplings and, enough sunlight (and goats) permitting, grow to become trees. The Mexican “jumping bean” rolls itself away from its parent, turning over and over, albeit slowly.

With fruit and nuts we saw plant offspring being cached or stowing away inside birds and mammals. But some hitch-hike on the outside too, like the burs that work their way into animal fur and into our woolen clothing. These are seed cases covered in tiny hooks, said to have been the inspiration for the invention of velcro fastenings in clothes. The cleaver or “sticky-back” may attach many of its small burs to a passing mammal, while the burdock, with its much larger burs, is more likely to hitch a ride in ones or twos. Tiny seeds of many grasses stick to wool, fur and hair too, especially when damp. But many other grasses with larger seeds, including cereals, grow “ears” with spikes attached to each seed and these too, when dry and ready to go, get picked up by the wool or fur of passing traffic.

Hitchhiker seeds — the ‘fruits’ of the burdock after flowering become a bur to attach to passing traffic.
(Photo source: Internet)
All aspects of the Cleaver plant (“Stickyback”), another hitchhiker for its seeds.
(Photo source: Wikipedia)

The pines even use forest fires to spread seeds from inside their cones on the hot wind – each seed has a little vane around it to help it sail the wind. Sure, many will burn before they sail or blow into another fire – but some will survive. The alternative is just to burn.

The coconut, on the other hand, floats its fruit to distant shores – it is not for tourist brochures that the palms grew fringing tropical beaches. Falling coconuts roll away from the tree too – if they don’t hit some unfortunate large animal first. Many other plants use floods to populate different areas, often creating stronger banks or islands as their offspring grow, sometimes even changing the very course of a river or stream. The various willows and alders are adepts at this, as are many kinds of reeds and rushes.

The latter kind of colonisation may be by seeds but there are other methods too: severed branches or leaves that grow roots into water, uprooted saplings, tubers and bulbs. Bulbs, rhizomes and strings of tubers have been used by many plants to store food for offspring, nascent new plants hiding below or on the ground. Even when a field of potatoes is harvested, there are often tiny potatoes remaining that escaped the harvesting procedure – the following year, they may be seen, sprouting new plants.

Some plants are capable of employing all of the various methods of reproduction and distribution: seed, tuber, branch or leaf regeneration.

A somewhat similar method to strings of tubers – and possibly their actual origin – is the underground runner, like a root running just below and parallel to the surface, sending out shoots upwards and roots downwards at intervals, each of those becoming a new plant, a clone. Many grasses employ this procedure, some bunching close like the bamboo and others spreading away in different directions, as for example with the couch or scutch grass. The latter may be to the despair of the gardener, who however will use runners of the strawberry to grow new fruiting plants.

Grasses are a late and special kind of plant that can be grazed down to ground level and grow again, year after year. This provided a renewable food source for animals that could convert its leaves and seeds into sufficient energy – enter herds of goat and sheep, horse, donkey, zebra, deer, antelope, bison and cattle! And therefore enter their predators too, in particular the big cats, canines and – homo sapiens. She in turn would domesticate some of those species, including another predator as helper, the canine. That combination would change the world quite significantly and when homo sapiens learned to cultivate some of the grasses for their seeds, i.e cereals, well ……!

End.

NB: Thanks to Oisín Breatnach for editing work (all subsequent errors etc are mine) and Osgur Breatnach for reminding me of the onion in a separate discussion.

REFERENCES & SOURCES

Early appearance of plants: https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2018/02/land-plants-arose-earlier-thought-and-may-have-had-bigger-impact-evolution-animals

Leaves: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leaf

Native and invasive plants to Ireland: http://www.wildflowersofireland.net/

Deciding when to germinate: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/seeds-use-tiny-brains-decide-when-germinate-180963625/

Tiny bristles in grass: https://www.quora.com/Why-does-grass-make-you-itchy

Ants protecting acacias from pathogens: http://www.messagetoeagle.com/acacia-tree-uses-ants-as-body-guards-and-rewards-them-with-shelter-and-food/

Plants inhibiting germination of competitors: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Allelopathy

Poisonous effects of bracken on ruminants: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00580-018-2636-2

Trees summoning the predators on caterpillars: https://lt.org/publication/how-do-forest-trees-defend-themselves-against-insects-under-natural-conditions-and

Features of the alder: https://books.google.ie/books?id=uvNgBQAAQBAJ&pg=PT46&lpg=PT46&dq=how+long+does+alder+timber+remain+waterproof&source=bl&ots=h-

NATURE DOESN’T CARE

Diarmuid Breatnach

(Reading time: 3 minutes)

A number of people have commented on Nature proceeding unaffected by the crisis of humans faced with the current Coronavirus pandemic. Although not entirely unaffected, it certainly seems that is so but it is a reflection of our generally subjective view of the natural world around us that we should be surprised at all.

The grass does not grow for us though we may have sown some of it, the leaves do not open nor flowers bloom to please our eyes, the birds do not sing to bring us pleasure through our ears, nor do blossoms and flowers pump out fragrances to please our nostrils. They are engaged in the deadly serious business of alimentation and procreation.

Here in early April the leaves unfurling and already unfurled from their winter sleep inside their branches of willow, sycamore, birch, rowan, elder, lime, alder, oak and chestnut will not notice much difference this year as they spread their catchers to collect the rays of the sun, the chlorophyll working to feed a new year’s growth. The ash is a little behind, its hard black protective bud-covers about to break open. Flower racemes are already well advanced on the invasive and poisonous cherry laurel and making a good start on the horse chestnut tree. If they are aware of anything, it is probably that suddenly the air has become much cleaner, as the volume of industrial and vehicle air-pollutants has suddenly dropped dramatically.

Weeping willows (saileach shilte) along the Tulcadh (Tolka), Griffith Park, Dublin. early April.
(Photo source: D.Breatnach)

Not that it’s all peaceful out there – they all have their own struggles, competing for light and moisture, resisting attacks by insects, fungi and even other plants like ivy.

The robin (spideog), blackbird (londubh) and finch (glasán) are not singing for us nor even “merrily”, as the poets would have it – it’s a serious business, attracting a mate, fighting off competitors, then building a nest and raising young in safety from predators. The lowering of the air pollution level might bring a bloom in some invertebrate populations, animals without backbones like insects and snails, which would be welcomed to feed the birds’ young.

Birds (éanlaith) that will probably miss our usual level of activity will be those heavily dependent on human activity and some of its waste products, i.e the city pigeons (colúir) and seagulls (faoileáin), while the latter at sea might well do well from less commercial fishing and pollution. The fish will certainly benefit from a reduction in human activity.

In the streams and rivers the finger-length three-spined stickleback male will soon be establishing and defending his territory, where he will build a nest into which to entice an egg-filled female, there to lay her many eggs for him to fertilise. She’ll be off then, thank you ma’am and dad will raise the young until they are capable of free-swimming and feeding themselves, though still tiny. These are those that in parts of Ireland are called “pinkeens”, an interesting combination of two languages: the English “pink” and the diminutive ending “ín” in Irish (however the Irish name is completely different: “garmachán”). Look at the female and you’ll see no hint of the “pink” but the male in full breeding colour is something to see alright: throat and chest in bright red, an almost luminous green upper body and head with bright blue eyes.

Male Three-spined Stickleback in mating colours showing bright red belly and blue eyes.  This is a sub-species from British Columbia — the Irish version has a green head and body.  (Source photo: Internet)

In the city, with less waste on the street, the population of rats (francaigh) and mice (lucha) might be in for some tougher times, as might the foxes (sionnaigh). Developing a life-style as a scavenger on the refuse of other life-forms can be very beneficial but such populations are vulnerable to the fate of their unconscious benefactors.

Much animal and plant life benefits from the activity of humans, it is true – but a lot more suffers from it and would not be harmed at all by our disappearance.

A stand of different species of trees with cherry in blossom, Griffith Park, early April.
(Photo source: D.Breatnach)

End.

DREAMS of BURGLARY, COUSINS, and a CUBAN AUTHOR

Diarmuid Breatnach

          I awoke from a dream, unsettled.

          I and another man had been burgling a building, one which I later recognised as bearing a resemblance in part to a place in which I had once worked. My dreams are often located in scenarios reminiscent of my working life but usually they are of the industrial period, factories, vast or small and dilapidated. The building in my dream was in part from a later period and the office space was reminiscent of a hostel for the homeless in London, where my job had been that of the Deputy Manager.

That hostel had been of course in 24-hour operation, with staff on rota throughout all those hours but, in the dream, it was open only during the day (like some facilities for the homeless whose management have the confidence to tell those who run 24-hour operations how they should manage their establishments and whom they should not exclude).

In the first scene I remember I was in an alley outside the target building and my accomplice appears to have been inside already. The building’s doorway was near the mouth of the alley, which opened on to a main road. I shrank back into the doorway as someone left a nearby building, either at the corner or just around it, calling out something to whoever he was leaving behind. Then the door was opened by my accomplice and I stepped inside.

Having closed the door, I saw that somehow he was already in the office while I was in the entry passageway. Looking at him through the glass of the reception office, I saw he had the safe open already but was awkwardly keeping the office door open with an outstretched foot. He beckoned me in with an impatient gesture.

Entering the office, I kept the door open while he emptied the safe of money. I knew that if the door was allowed to close it would set off an alarm (yes, I know, crazy and why did we not just wedge it open?).

Soon, I was further down the corridor and opening up another safe and taking out bundles of currency notes. Closing the safe, since our intention was to delay discovery of the theft, I brought the money up to the reception office. Now, at this late stage, I began to worry about concealed video recording cameras and drew a scarf partly across my face.  I mentioned my fear to my accomplice, who commented that if CCTV cameras were installed, they already had our faces so why worry?

Of course, that was not very reassuring. I began to regret the whole operation.

“So what do you want to do?” he asked.

“I know what I feel like doing,” I replied. “I feel like leaving the money here and leaving. But I am not sure what I really want to do.”

“Leave the money, after all we’ve gone through to get in here?”

“I know, I know. OK, let’s just finish the job.”

“Just keep denying it and they can’t prove anything,” he replied and that is about when I awoke.

***   ***  ***

(Image source: Internet)

As noted earlier, I felt very unsettled by the dream and could not get back to sleep – so I switched on the bedside lamp to read awhile, a novel by a Cuban writer called Leonardo Padura.

Sometime later, I switched off the light and was soon back asleep. And dreaming again.

***   ***  ***

There is only one scene from that dream I remember: a plain room, perhaps a kitchen, a rectangular table, at my long side of which one woman sits on a chair, another on the other side and yet another on the short side, both also on chairs. There is another chair in front of me, empty, into which I am ushering a youngish and tall man I know to be my Irish cousin.

The woman to my left might be my mother but if so, much younger than matches my adult age. The other woman nearest is to my right, sitting back somewhat from the short side of the table and is in her early to mid-twenties. On the opposite side of the table to me, is a somewhat older woman who appears to be in her thirties. Again improbably, I think she is the mother of the younger woman.

I seat the young man on the empty chair and then go to the youngest woman, whom I now know to be a cousin also. She bends towards the older woman and whispers something to her but I take her by the elbow and steer her towards my male cousin, reflecting while doing so that maybe I should have done this the other way around.

As I reach him, I say to my male cousin that “I wish to introduce the delectable S—-” (I am uncertain about the exact adjective I used but it was something like that).

I think they shook hands and then she sat down again.

***   ***  ***

The mobile alarm woke me but I was tired, so reset it for another hour and was soon asleep. And dreaming again.

The scene this time was similar to that of an Asian buffet in Moore Street, Dublin, that I frequent from time to time. But the man behind the counter was Latin American, not Asian. I asked him about the Mexican Bay Tree – were its leaves used for flavouring as with the bay tree with which we are more familiar here in Ireland?

He seemed puzzled and asked me where I had heard about this tree.

I replied that it had been mentioned in a book by a Cuban author, Padura. He burst into scornful laughter and exclaimed something like “Ni vive, ni siquiera estuvo nunca ahi!” (“He neither lives nor was even ever there,” i.e in Cuba). And he called out in Spanish to another staff member of the restaurant.

I said then that I was not surprised, for Padura’s main character Conde comments quite negatively on the state of affairs in Cuba, which reflects badly on its management and I felt he could hardly continue doing so if he actually lived there.

The reset alarm went off and I awoke with the rapidly-fading memory of yet a fourth dream (now gone completely).

COMMENT

          I would have loved to take these dreams to my mother for analysis but she is dead a dozen years now. She followed the Jungean method and had done some amazing analyses of dreams for members of the family and also for some close acquaintances. Amazing, in terms of perceptiveness and apparent relevance to the individual concerned.

The basis of the Jungean system is to recognise that everything in a dream is from the subconscious, which speaks to the conscious mind in symbols. Therefore things, words and people dreamed of tend to be representing something else and people in particular, whether male or female, young or old, known or unknown to represent parts of one’s subconscious.  Carl Jung also spoke of archetypes, representations of events, figures and motifs which he believed all humans shared from the earliest beginning of the human race but which are also overlain with their own specific ethnic and period culture.

The Burglary

          So what would my mother have made of the burglary dream? She would of course consult the known archetypes but would also interrogate me about some of the dominant aspects, asking what they represented to me, personally.

What would she have made of the fact that the representation of my accomplice was an Irish “dissident” Republican known to me, along with my fear of discovery? The man could represent dissidence, disobedience of authority (in the conscious world of reality, both of State and of some party leaders) but also honesty, dedication, courage. And my fear? Maybe a real one, of danger from the repressive apparatus of the State. Nothing new there, however.

Then there was the reception office door that must not be closed!  I must be open to receive something?

The building in part represented a place in which I had worked once and had been treated very badly as an employee. In the course of my work there I had to take two separate grievances against my manager on the grounds of his impeding my professional development, in both of which I succeeded in gaining access to the steps I sought (training and practice). My manager had taken out two disciplinary procedures against me, both of which turned out to be unsuccessful but which naturally, caused me a lot of stress.

The background was that he had wanted another candidate to succeed in the interview procedure in which I had come highest and he had objected to the decision of the interviewing panel; subsequently they had announced that no-one had reached the required level. I sought feedback on this, seeking the scoring in my case and a senior manager ordered another round, this time with a union rep and an Equalities rep on the panel with the manager in question. Although, as I learned later, I had come highest again, due to the sitting manager’s insistence on another candidate, the panel recommended an isometric test to decide between the two top applicants and I had come out on top of that procedure too.

I was appointed to the post.

When I first met my manager-to-be some days later to discuss starting work at the hostel, he told me he had not been pleased with recruitment procedure. I replied that there were some aspects that had not pleased me either but that we had best leave all that behind us. It was subsequently clear that either he was unable to do that or did not wish to.

But a building in dream analysis often represents one’s own head or, more precisely, one’s brain ….

And stealing from it? I don’t know.

Ma! Are you there? Ma! Ma!

The Cousins

          The lack of detail apart from the figures in that dream is striking, forcing one to concentrate on the actors, without distraction.

In reality, on the Irish side of my antecedents, only one siblin of my father had children (six, five brothers and one sister, also just like ours). In the real world, my female cousin is actually named S— but although she might well be considered delectable, is not tall and fair-haired, as she was in my dream. And ALL my Irish cousins are siblings, which made the introduction of one Irish cousin to another ridiculous. In the real world, ridiculous yes – but in the world of symbolic representations?

There were three women in the dream and one male, other than myself. Two of the women played observing roles while the third seemed somewhat reluctant to be introduced to the male cousin. It seems to me that this represents a need for some female parts of my brain to come to greater ease with the male parts. The female represened is family, so is close but as a cousin, slightly distant; the mother figures, one very close (mother) and the other (aunt) slightly distant, observe rather benignly. The male cousin, willing to be introduced, would be a representation of a male part of myself.

The Cuban Author

           The book I had been reading was indeed by Padura and in reality I had been wondering about this “Mexican bay tree”, making a mental note to ask the Oracle (Google) about it. And I had wondered about Padura’s comments about Cuba (through his main character). Although I was sure Cuba was no paradise and had heard of a decline in revolutionary standards of the leadership and in society, I wondered whether a) things were as bad as Padura’s character Conde thinks and says and b) how or why Padura lives there if that’s how things are.

So, a straightforward carrying through of waking questions into a dream? Perhaps. But why would they be of such importance as to be dreamed about? It seems one should dig deeper.

The scene presented in the Asian buffet was familiar and yet exotic too, in the food on offer. Cuba is exotic to me as would be, I presume a Mexican bay tree, whatever that is. But the bay tree with which I am familiar has fragrant leaves and I use it often in cooking.

And that’s as far as I can get.

Ma! Are you there? Ma! Ma!

End.

Mexican Bay Tree
(Photo source: Internet)

POSTSCRIPT

According to Wikipedia

Leonardo de la Caridad Padura Fuentes (born on October 10th, 1955) is a Cuban novelist and journalist. As of 2007, he is one of Cuba’s best-known writers internationally. In his native Spanish, as well as in English and some other languages, he is often referred to by the shorter form of his name, Leonardo Padura. He has written screenplays, two books of short stories, and a series of detective novels translated into 10 languages. In 2012, Padura was awarded the National Prize for Literature, Cuba’s national literary award and the most important award of its kind. In 2015, he was awarded thePremio Principe de Asturias de las Letras of Spain, one of the most important literary prizes in the Spanish-speaking world and usually considered as the Iberoamerican Nobel Prize.[1]

The reference, mostly about the writer, has some passages which are critical of the regime. And yes, Padura does live in Havana, Cuba.

According to one site, the Mexican Bay Tree (Litsea glaucescens) is an uncommon shrub:

A small, evergreen tree growing to 15-20 feet. Leaves are leathery and elongated in shape, growing up to 3″. They are distinct in having a blue-green coloration to their undersides. Flowers are small, white-green in color. Fruits are small, at most 1/2″ across and ripen to a deep purple-black. There are supposedly a handful of varieties or variants of this species, though minimal attention seems to be given to propagating select types.

According to Wikipedia,

It grows in the mountains, on the banks of rivers and is planted in the garden of houses. It is used as seasoning. It is in danger of extinction,[3][citation needed] because it has been used extensively for various uses, medicinal and culinary purposes even religious during the celebration of Palm Sunday. The species is one of the most important non-wood trees of Mexico. This species has been exploited for different purposes: religious,[2] dietary and medicinal, where the young branches and leaf tissues are used. This has resulted in a considerable exploitation in virtually all their range.

Of course, these aspects of the plant would have brought a whole lot of other aspects into the dream analysis, except that I didn’t know them then.

Or did I, subconsciously somehow …..?

FREE CARPETS AND PERFUME!

Diarmuid Breatnach

 

The carpet is a lush deep kind of green – not too deep a green though. We didn’t order it but I’m not complaining – I like it. Much better than that yellow one we had for a while a few months back.

 

Next to it is another kind of carpet – very different. The same green background but covered in big blobs of yellow, brown, orange and mixtures of all three. Even some reds. The blobs are large and small, some shaped like the spades suit in a deck of cards, others like a cat’s iris, some with many points, like a star … Didn’t order that carpet either but I like it too. It might not sound that great but you’d have to see it.

There was the wallpaper too, great stretches already unrolled, ready to look at. A blue-white background with puffs of white and, in the foreground, thin black shapes, some of them decorated with those blobs of colours, like those on that carpet. Great contrast with the thin black shapes.

The carpets and wallpaper were just delivered – no order was placed by phone or email. And no request for payment by cash or credit card. Not even an invoice. Totally free! Hard to believe, I know.

Then there was the perfume. No, not in bottles, in the air. I swear! (Yes, I know that rhymes but I didn’t plan it). It was heady but not in the way that rose is, or honeysuckle, or privet flower. Those aromas make you kind of want to sit down and drowse …. or even lie down and go to sleep. Then you remember the story of the artist who died inhaling in his sleep the aroma of flowers he had in a vase to paint – and you don’t linger too long. Did that really happen? Not sure – best not take the chance. Didn’t take a chance on the dandelion flowers when you were a kid either. Waking up in a wet bed is not a pleasant experience at any age but definitely gets worse, even if rarer, as one grows older.

Glade part-sunlit, Botanic Gardens November 2018
(Photo: D.Breatnach)

No, this perfume does not make you want to sit or lie down; it makes you want to jump, run (or at least stride purposefully). It is invigorating. That too was delivered free.

All of this – well, most of it – was donated by the trees. Not the green, surely? Not directly, no … but indirectly, yes. The grass grows in the earth which is fed by dead leaves and other material, broken down by insects and fungi and especially recycled through the digestive tracts of worms. May those gardeners who poison worms on their lawns be forever damned!

Autumn leaves on green grass, Botanic Gardens November 2018
(Photo: D.Breatnach)

Before Ireland was denuded of her mixed forests, what a site she must have been!

All this visual, olfactory and mood-enhancing stuff was delivered free to us but there is, you are right to suspect it, a hidden cost. The weather is getting colder and sitting nearly naked on a beach is definitely out, to say nothing of plunging into the freezing water (well, with some lunatic exceptions). Outdoor cafe-sitting is becoming more of an endurance test than a pleasure. There are days coming when lots of good arguments (convincing at the time anyway) will be found against getting up to go about once’s business.

Trees on banks of Tolka River, Botanic Gardens November 2018
(Photo: D.Breatnach)

But then there will be glittering jeweled grass, constellation of stars in the pavement, artwork fronds on glass, white star patterns in things floating from the sky, white blankets over everything or at least over the hilltops in the distance, the special joy of a hot soup, a warm fire and blankets (if you have them) ….

And not too long away, sprouting buds pushing through bark and soil, misty green branches, a different perfume, quickening the blood in a different way.

End.

AUTUMN ART – review of exhibition by Eoin Mac Lochlainn

Diarmuid Breatnach

 

Deire-Fómhair (‘October’, also “End of Autumn’), an exhibition of art by Eoin Mac Lochlainn, was on show this afternoon in the Olivier Cornet Gallery in Great Denmark Street , Dublin and I went along to view it.  An installation and 24 paintings are listed.

Photo: D.Breatnach

It is of course the installation that first catches the eye, mainly due to its size, secondarily its colours and viewing it one must, I think, come to the conclusion that the space is too small for it. Artists I suppose must use whatever exhibition spaces are available to them. Standing back as far as one can, the installation still does not reveal its full potential. But photographing in the gaps between the hanging pieces in the first row, one sees tree-trunks, dappled with slanting autumnal light through dying leaves, moss and lichen pattern on trunks and the autumn leaves themselves.

A view of almost the full width of the front of the installation (but please see the revealing subsequent photos).
Photo: D.Breatnach
Tree trunks appear in this and subsequent views of the installation.
Photo: D.Breatnach
Another view of tree trunks appears.
Photo: D.Breatnach

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The installation is composed of 64 painted lengths of rice paper and is lit from behind with accompanying recorded bird song which adds to the ambience. In the leaflet accompanying the exhibition, the artist wrote:

This is a traditional paper which originated in ancient China and has been used for centuries for calligraphy, artwork and architecture. It is as white as alabaster, known for its strength and smooth surface, very delicate when wet but said to last for a thousand years – an enchanting medium with which to work.

Earlier views showed tree trunks in an autumnal light, perhaps surrounded by falling or fallen leaves. This is a different view again, the trunks covered in blotches as of alga and lichen or fungal colourations.
Photo: D.Breatnach
Photo: D.Breatnach

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Photo: D.Breatnach
Viewing at an angle, the tall trunks appear, most perhaps in the receding distance. Photo: D.Breatnach

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Around the wall are a number of watercolour paintings, mostly 15×19, some 12×12 and a few 20×20 and one, very different in style and composition, of 45×33. The latter looks older and by another painter and appropriately so, perhaps, since it is an interpretation of a painting by the German Romantic landscape painter Friedrich (1774-1840), “Solitary Tree”, painted probably (according to Google) in 1822, nearly two centuries ago.

Ó Lochlainn’s interpretation of Friedrich’s “Solitary Tree” (original painted two centuries earlier).

The subject seems to be an oak, its upper trunk dead but with leaves on branches spreading further down. It seems to have weathered many storms and perhaps a lightning strike years ago …. but it yet remains, stubbornly alive.

I do not know what motivated either Friedrich or Mac Lochlainn to take this image as their subject but in the leaflet, the latter has written:

 

 

 

 

 

Trees are a link between the past, the present and the future. The majestic stature, the long lifespan and the familiarity give them a monument-like quality but they also have a special aura that is difficult to define. Research has shown that within minutes of being surrounded by trees, our blood pressure drops, our heart rate slows and stress levels begin to reduce.

Less calming no doubt are the images of the watercolours which he titles Dóite (‘burned’ but also: ‘wasted, laid bare, destroyed’). The images are bleak, disturbing, of dead tree-trunks in a wasteland. In the accompanying leaflet, the artist notes:

I have been developing a body of work which explores the effects of climate change and in particular, reflects on the significance of trees.

One of the “Dóite” series, disturbing yet with a horrific beauty.
Photo: D.Breatnach

These images could also reflect the negative effects of acid rain, nuclear or chemical contamination or timber monoculture and the exposure of trees thereby to increased likelihood and intensity of infestation by invertebrates and fungi (as for example the latter is attacking pine plantations in the Basque Country).

The watercolour series titled Cosán Coille and Siúlóid Sléibhe are exquisite colour and tone in a way of which I think only watercolours can be. It is surprising then to learn that Mac Lochlainn’s previous work has been in oils and that he found the change exacting:

In recent years, I switched from oils to watercolours in order to have less of an impact on the environment.

The switch has been both challenging and rewarding – challenging to master the idiosyncrasies of the medium but very rewarding in discovering new possibilities and avenues of enquiry for my practice.

The smaller size of the paintings restrains one from being pulled into them, the way a larger painting might do but that does not prevent them from being beautiful, sometimes in an almost painful way.

One of either the Siúlóid Coille or Siúlóid Sléibhe series (I cannot remember).  Photo: D.Breatnach

Trees have been called “the lungs of the world” and were considered of great importance to the Celts; the Gaels peppered our place-names with references to them: abhall (apple), áirn (sloe, fruit of the blackthorn), beith (birch), caorthainn (rowan), coll (hazel), cuileann (holly), dair (oak), draighneán (blackthorn), fearnóg (alder), fuinnseog (ash), giúis (fir, pine, deal), iúr (yew), sail or saileach (willow),sceach (whitethorn, normally).1 They appear also in many of our folk-songs.

Prices of paintings range from 380 Euro to 1,200 and the gallery offers a service of payment by installment. The artist, Eoin Ó Lochlainn, who happens to be closely related to Patrick Pearse, has had numerous exhibitions in each year going back to 2013 and has won a number of awards. Collections of his artwork are held in AIB, Bank of Ireland, OPW, Revenue Commissioners, AXA Insurance, Foras na Gaeilge, Gael Linn, the Boyle Civic Collection, Wesley College, University of Limerick, Donegal County, Cló Ceardlann na gCnoc.

One wall with ten paintings hung, including examples of the Siúlóid Coille, Siúlóid Sléibhe and Dóite series.
Photo: D.Breatnach

USEFUL LINKS:

Fuller CV of artist: http://www.oliviercornetgallery.com/#/eoin-mac-lochlainn-artist-cv/4585927092

Artist’s Blog: https://emacl.wordpress.com/

Artist’s FB page: https://www.facebook.com/EoinMacL

Olivier Cornet Gallery: 087288261 or info@oliviercornetgallery.com

Tree Council of Ireland: https://treecouncil.ie/

Place-name database, Irish and English: https://www.logainm.ie/en/

FOOTNOTES

1Place-name examples: Abhallort (Oulart), Co. Wexford); Beith an Ghalláin (Behagulane, Carberry, Col Cork); Cill Áirne (Killarney); Doire (many, including Derry City and County; Áth na bhFuinnseog (Ashford, Co. Wicklow); Giúiseanna Boróimhe (Boroimhe Pines, Fingal); Iúir Chinn Trá (Newry, Cos. Armagh & Down); An Baile Sceathach (Ballyskeagh, Co. Galway); Saillí (Scilly, Kinsale, Co. Cork)

A BASQUE COUNTRY REGION – BIODIVERSITY AND CULTURE

Diarmuid Breatnach

          People visit the Basque Country for different reasons — among the touristic reasons are cuisine, folk culture and beach-type tourism including surfing. For some there may be business reasons and possibly on the other end of the spectrum from them there is the political aspect – interest in and solidarity with their struggle for independence and to a lesser extent perhaps, socialism. Eco-tourism and archaeological interest are probably not high on the list for most people but I’d suggest it would be worthwhile to include sites dealing with such aspects in any itinerary.

Many Basques would tell you that their country has a long way to go in environmentally-friendly practices – or at least in those less harmful to the environment; if true, it serves to illustrate just how far behind the desirable are the practices common in Ireland. Everywhere in Basque village or town, one sees the recycling containers in their five different colours for paper, plastic, metal, glass and organic waste. One frequent complaint is about timber-production forestation practices and though much of the Basque country is green with trees, many of those trees are conifers or, even worse, Basques will say, eucalypts in mono-cultural acres. The latter are indeed widespread and are said to suck the moisture out of the soil so that after they are felled, little else can grow there.

Environmentally-friendly timber production is less intensive and more diverse in species, less harmful to biodiversity of plant and animal life and more protective of the soil from erosion, flooding and desiccation. But to business — and therefore mainstream political interests — it is slower in turnover of profit. The perils of this concentration on early profit gain have been underlined this year with the infestation of the main crop pines, the “Monterey pine” (Pinus radiata) by the ‘Mycosphaerella dearnessii’ fungi and ‘Mycosphaerella pini’, said to have originated in Central America, which turns the foliage (needles) brown, eventually leading to the destruction of the tree.

Pines infected by fungi in the southern Basque Country (Photo: El Correo)

That all said, at grassroots (forgive the unintended pun) and often municipal level, there is great interest and support for biodiversity in the Basque Country and discussion around the subject is much more socially widespread than one would find in Ireland or in most of Britain (though perhaps not in some other parts of Europe). There are many national parks and reserves of great beauty and even city Basques tend to have a culture of collecting edible fungi in the woods in the autumn and of hill-walking or mountain-climbing at various times of the year. And small farms can be found dotted throughout the countryside.

Education about the environment for adults, children and even tourists is taken seriously and, apart from schools, centres promoting environmental care can be found in many areas. One such site of interest is the bio-diversity and heritage centre of Madariaga, the Ekoetxea, in the Axpe de Busturia area between the towns of Bermeo and Gernika These are interesting towns in themselves of the coast of Bizkaia (Biscay) province and Gernika was of course made famous by its bombing by the Nazi Luftwaffe, in the service of the fascist generals (Franco et al) in 1937, during what probably most people call the the Spanish Civil War and others, the Iberian Anti-Fascist War. Bus and train services connects both towns and pass through Busturia, both services having a stop or station in Axpe. The bus and train services run at mostly half-hourly intervals, the train all the way to Bilbao, on a single track for much of the line, up and down trains alternating.

I dropped in to a charming tavern in Axpe named after the Basque flower, Eguzkilore: literally “Sun Flower”. This is not the “sunflower” which Van Gogh famously painted, so named because it turns to follow the sun through its journey across the sky; the Basque flower (Carlina acaulis) is a member of the thistle family and is thought to resemble an idealised image of the sun. Dried specimens are often found hanging over the front door of Basque houses as a good-luck symbol, quite probably a remnant of pagan sun-worship (like the Irish “St. Bridget’s Cross” and indeed the traditional Basque symbol of the lauburru is very like that Irish symbol too and interestingly, the Basque tradition related to me was that it was borrowed from the Iberian Celts).

Dried Eguzkilore attached to the outside of a Basque house near the front door (Image sourced: Internet).

The Eguzkilore tavern is owned by a friendly young couple, a Catalan woman and Basque man: he of course speaks Euskera and Castillian (Spanish) fluently, whereas she is fluent in Catalan, Castillian and English, speaks Euskera well and smatterings of other languages. Although I know from experience that their cuisine is excellent, I ordered only a simple kafe esnea there and after finishing it and a chat, set off up the road to the Madariaga Ekoetxea (“eco-house”), an easy walk of perhaps fifteen minutes. Turning left at the roundabout at the crest of the hill the centre was easily visible by the clock-bell tower and the taller viewing tower.

This latter was a defensive construction quite similar to the keeps constructed in Britain and Ireland by the Norman invaders, livestock quartered below and people living on floors above; one of the staff told me that it had been inhabited until the 1930s. Now the floors have been ripped out except for the top one, accessible by a short journey in a lift and once there one can view around something like 160 degrees: steep hills close by beyond the road, land sloping away towards Gernika and distant mountains on another side, beach of the estuary and some marshlands on another.

A view of estuary and marshlands from the Tower observatory — it was a rainy day and the photograph is taken through glass
(Photo: D.Breatnach)
Closeup view of estuary and marshlands from the Tower observatory — it was a rainy day and the photograph is taken through glass
(Photo: D.Breatnach)
A view of river/ inlet mouth and headland eastward from the Tower observatory — it was a rainy day and the photograph is taken through glass (Photo: D.Breatnach).
The view southward from the Tower observatory is not so appetising but shows the steepness of the hills there. From those wooded slopes owls hooting may be heard night after night.
(Photo: D.Breatnach)

The Tower was in fact the last part of the centre which I experienced. It was a showery Sunday in mid-October and the centre was fairly quiet, less that ten vehicles in the car park and nobody but a receptionist immediately available upon entering the building. I used my limited Euskera in addressing her, which is my practice in the Basque Country, and which is usually – but not always – appreciated. The native language has become “politicised” here (as some say it has also in the case of Irish in Ireland), which is another way of saying that it was banned under the Franco dictatorship, that people of a Spanish unionist turn of mind often resent it and native speakers, learners and independentists want to encourage its spread and use in everyday life. Of course in a cultural type of centre in the Basque Country I would not expect any negative response and I was answered politely in Euskera with a quick conversion to Castillian when my limited store of Euskera ran out.

WATER AND BIODIVERSITY

I had seen a small charge advertised outside but there was none on that day or perhaps that time of year to see two standard exhibitions, one on water and the other on biodiversity. The one on water informs visitors that water is a circulatory system: 1) most of it falls from the air in rain or humidity, some of it on to land and some on to lakes or on to the sea; 2) some of that which falls on land is taken up by soil and vegetation and excess runs off into streams, rivers and lakes; 3) some also soaks through permeable or semi-permeable strata of soil and rock and forms underwater reservoirs and lakes. 4) The excess runs out in underground rivers and streams, emerging eventually to empty into seas and lakes, where 5) the sun heats up the top layers again, creating clouds, many of which precipitate on to land, renewing the circle.

Photo panel of rock and limestone deposit formations in a Basque cave.

The diagrams, photos and videos demonstrated this process well and attractively and there were samples of varieties of sandstone and limestone to examine at close quarters. For me, the photos of underground caves formed by the water wearing away the limestone and the various and sometimes fantastic formations caused by chemical-rich water dripping for millenia were the most impressive along with the few examples of invertebrates adapted to life without light and mammals using natural caves were the most interesting, while others might have found the supplying of water to the public of greater interest (and certainly this is an important issue in many countries and not least so in Ireland).

Photo panel of troglodyte spider eating something.
Sleeping bat hanging from stalactite in cave.

 

One of the fantastic shapes created by decades or even centuries of chemically-laden drips. (Photo: D.Breatnach)
Photo panel of cave chambers with humans present for scale.

The section dedicated to bio-diversity is divided into different parts, including a room with video screens showing different types of humans (ethnic, gender, possibly sexuality, culture, age) and others dealing with plant, fungi and animal life. Passing through a type of broad corridor with explanations of what is a definition of biodiversity in many languages, one enters a brightly-lit room seemingly constructed entirely of panels, each one of an animal: birds, mammals, fish, reptiles, insects and other invertebrates. Not only the walls but floor and ceiling appear constructed of the panels, a vibrant bright room somewhat evoking the effect of stained glass with light shining through, a church celebrating the diversity of animal life, perhaps.

A kind of foyer before the rest of the exhibition (Photo: D.Breatnach)
The room “made of” panels of bio-diverse life, like stained glass: ceiling and two walls.
(Photo: D.Breatnach)
Floor in the illuminated panels room.
(Photo: D.Breatnach)

Walking onwards, one finds a hall filled with large cubes, standing haphazardly upon one another, each carrying the image of an animal or plant. The names of the species are given in Euskera, Castillian and Latin. I find myself at times wishing to see the names in English and then chiding myself for the unreasonableness of this wish. There are images of plants to be seen too, some of plants which we are informed are native to the country and one found only there.

The “Life Cube Hall” (as I think of it).
(Photo: D.Breatnach)

ATTRACTIONS IN THE WIDER AREA

A slim informational folded leaflet is available in a number of languages, one version being in English and French, not only about this centre but about a network of them managed by the “Basque Government” (i.e the Government of three of the southern Basque provinces, Biskaia, Gipuzkoa and Alava). These are visited every year by 100,000 people, the booklet informs us, 25,000 of which are schoolchildren; the ekoetxea which I visited receives 2,000 schoolchildren out of a total of 45,000 visitors annually.

Dragonfly and Water-Scorpion panel. The first lives in the water as infant, hunting prey , before its metamorphosis to flying hunter. The second lives always in the water, usually in the higher reaches, also hunting. Its “tail” does not sting people but its proboscis can, though not seriously.
(Photo: D.Breatnach)
A view of the ‘Cube Life Room’ between cubes. (Photo: D.Breatnach)

Another, more substantial booklet available in English which shows signs of translation probably from Castillian gives more information on the Urdaibai Biosphere Reserve, the wider area in which the Madariaga Ekoetxea is located. This booklet advertises nature trails for hiking or biking, restaurants for Basque cuisine, a cave occupied by prehistoric humans, the Gernika Tree and General Assembly building and museum, markets and folk festivals, cider and wine-houses, painted forest, hermitages, bird-watching and sea activities including surfing and whale and dolphin-watching. Strangely (or not), in its caption about Gernika, it has nothing to say about the bombing of the town in 1937 nor, in its references to human habitation and culture of the wider area, nothing either to say about the Spanish Civil (i.e Anti-Fascist) war or about the occupation of the area by the fascist troops and the repression that followed, nor about the suppression of their language under Franco.  

An information panel tells visitors that there are 3,335 different mammal, bird, fish, reptile, amphibian, fungi and plant species etc. in the the Urdaibai reserve and that 85 are in danger of extinction or are of special interest.  Some panels showing examples of these would be welcome as would more about the wildlife native to the area (like what species are the owls one can hear hooting at intervals through the night from the forested hill above Axpe, for example).

End

FURTHER INFORMATION:

Eguzkilore plant: 

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carlina_acaulis

Ekoetxea Urdaibai: info@urdaibai@ekoetxea.eus 0034 946 870 402

Madariaga Ekoetxea: http://www.ingurumena.ejgv.euskadi.eus/informacion/madariaga-tower-basque-biodiversity-centre/r49-madaria/en/

The Monterey Pine and fungal infection: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pinus_radiata

The Pine infection in the Basque Country (article in Castillian): 

https://www.diariovasco.com/gipuzkoa/pinos-gipuzkoa-heridos-20180607001828-ntvo.html

 

Extant and Extinct mollusc shells.
(Photo: D.Breatnach)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Different species’ seeds containers.
(Photo: D.Breatnach)
European Mink cube.
The centuries-old clock tower; the clock is on the other side but the bell rings out the hour. Also visible are the solar panels.
(Photo: D.Breatnach)
The Madariaga Tower (Photo: D.Breatnach)
The estuary and trees (Photo: D.Breatnach)

THE SCENT OF SEX — but not for you

  • Diarmuid Breatnach

You sniff the scent of blooms in the air and it pleases you. But that’s not what it’s for – the scent was not manufactured to please you. Scents derived from plants are used by humans to add to their sexual allure and plants also have a sexual function in producing them — but it is not humans the plants are trying to attract.

The scents are there to attract pollinators, insects, mammals or birds that will go to them to collect pollen and/ or nectar, in the course of which they will spread pollen from plant to plant and bring about fertilisation.

There are huge numbers of different chemicals producing scents and combinations of scents and, as the plants have developed them, their pollinators have also developed the ability to distinguish between them and to home in on the appropriate ones. It is likely that inside the pollinators some kind of receptor is created which is keyed into the specific scent, in much the same way as sexual pheromones are keyed into receptors inside so many species, including humans.

Irish Hawthorn (Sceach Gheal) bush or shrub in bloom. Its blooms produce a scent more pleasant to humans at a distance than very close up.  (Source photo: AP.Pfeiffer)

Irish Gorse (or Furze) (Aiteann) in bloom. The scent often reminds humans of coconut.
(Source: Environmental Protection Agency)

These pollinators then, quite unintentionally, dive into another bloom somewhere and like some kind of romantic couriers, deliver the pollen to the eager recipient. But unromantic really, to receive fertilisation from an unknown lover, unseen and barely felt. Yet it works, as around 400,000 flowering plants testify (though not all flowers use scent — colour and form suffice for some). And it will continue to work, as long as there are pollinators around (which is turning out to be a problem with large-scale deaths of bees, by far the most active of pollinators). But the animal kingdom? With some exceptions, its members need the presence of both sexual actors or more and stimuli to engage in sexual activity that will lead to procreation: temperature, light, foods, natural odours, shape, touch, erotic imagining, poetry, music, clothing, colour …. and yes, applied plant and artificial fragrances.

Irish Honeysuckle (Féithleann) in bloom; a climbing plant, its flowers produce a scent pleasing to most humans. (Photo source: Internet)

The scent of flowers is composed of a variety of VOCs (volatile organic compounds), most plant scents being composed of many compounds and some of up to several hundred. Collecting, isolating and analysing these compounds present great challenges to scientists but even small insects know what they mean, like an olfactory equivalent of a neon sign: NECTAR AND POLLEN HERE!.

Some plants emit scent throughout daylight and some at specific times of day only. And some not until after the sun has set. At night of course the plants do not have much competition but which pollinators will be active at night? Moths are the big group here but there are others, such as some bats.

There’s a night-scented shrub near my home that made me want to look into this subject and write about it a little. This time of year at night it is producing a strong sweet scent (with, to my nose, just a touch of urine smell in there too). You won’t find moths flying around at this time of year in Ireland and it’s not attracting bats so I guessed that it’s a foreigner and, where it comes from, that this time of year would be perfect. The shrub in question is the “Sweet Box” (Sarcoccoca confusa) and I was not surprised to find that its “native heath” is in eastern and southeastern Asia and the Himalayas.

The Sweet Box ( Sarcoccoca confusa), non-native, emits its scent at night (Photo: D.Breatnach)

People like the scent but it’s kind of sad when one thinks more about it, what it’s trying to do, like posting a message of sexual availability and procreation-wish on to a dating page and …. no-one replies.

Blooms and other parts of plants also produce scents which do not appear to have any role in attracting pollinators and scientists believe that these are defensive scents to ward off herbivores. In this case the olfactory sign is saying: “HORRIBLE TASTE! REMEMBER?” Not only that but plants can increase the production of such scents as parts of them are being eaten, to the extent that their attacker feels obliged to desist1. And some scientists also speculate that scents for pollinators developed first as scents to discourage herbivores.

Hemlock (Moing Mhear), a very poisonous native plant that looks like cow parsley. It has an aroma unpleasant to humans and probably to herbivores.

Given that some animal appropriators of plant products have learned to home in on the repellent scents of some plants this seems quite likely. Imagine a plant exuding a smell to ward off a herbivore and imagine an insect learning that where that particular smell is to be found, so is food such as nectar or pollen. The sign now says: HORRIBLE-TASTING TO HERBIVORES AND PARASITES but is accompanied by another sign that declares: FREE DELICIOUS FOOD FOR OTHERS! And the plants that most reach and “please” the accidental pollinators will naturally be more successful, be visited more often and spread their genes wider. Unless yet other animals learn to follow that scent in order to consume the plant, or lay their eggs on it for the larvae to feed on the plant. Cabbages and carrots for example, both of which have an odour we can identify, have eggs laid on them respectively by the cabbage butterfly and the carrot fly, which are then fed upon by the larvae as they hatch. And the butterfly and carrot fly find the plants by smell.

It is a difficult balance, to attract pollinators and yet repel herbivores and parasites and no doubt the balance is constantly being adjusted through the evolutionary processes of plants, herbivores, pollinators and parasites, in a kind of dance of love and death.

Cut red roses, often purchased from a florist — but do they have a scent?
(Source photo: Internet)

Those volatile compounds to be found in the scents of flowers almost certainly also make them difficult to keep fresh. The cut flowers business is a billion-euro one and growers have now produced blooms that last longer after cutting than they used to – sometimes for weeks. But scent?One of the most delightful scents to the human nose is that of the rose, about which songs have been sung and poems composed. Go into a florist, go to a bunch of roses and try and smell them — the chances are you won’t be able to.

The real thing, form, colour and scent — a pink rose.
(Source photo: Internet)

Shakespeare’s Juliet, who said that “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”2 might say today that “A rose without a scent is but half a rose”. When you do find a rose or another flower that is sweetly scented, breathe deep and enjoy the scent … but remember it’s not made for you. It’s for another flower, through the agency of a courier, a messenger.

It’s all about sex. And it’s a jungle out there.

End.

Sources and further information:

Flower fragrance:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Floral_scent

https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-do-flowers-have-scent/

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/why-do-flowers-smell-good-349826/

https://www.theflowerexpert.com/content/giftflowers/flowersandfragrances/specific-flower-fragrances

http://www.wildflowersofireland.net/plant_detail.php?id_flower=366

https://phys.org/news/2010-09-species.html

Night-scented shrub near me:

https://www.rhs.org.uk/Plants/16452/Sarcococca-confusa/Details

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sarcococca

Cut flower industry:

http://www.hortibiz.com/item/news/top-10-cut-flower-exporters-in-the-world/

https://www.ft.com/content/becc846e-3595-11e7-99bd-13beb0903fa3

 

FOOTNOTES

1Some plants can do this with poisons too

2Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare

COLOURFUL PIONEERS, STRANGE PARTNERS

Diarmuid Breatnach

They are all around us; they live but they are not animals. Nor are they micro-organisms – we see them clearly all in many places. They can grow on organic and none-organic surfaces. We might think they are plants – algae, moss or fungus but they are none of those — they are lichens. There are about 20,000 known species1 and they cover an estimated 6% of the Earth’s surface, able to exist in environments as different as beneath Artic snow, on salt spray-showered seashores and windswept mountain rocks and in tropical rainforest. An estimated 6% of the Earth’s land surface is covered by lichen species.2 Some are long-lived and include the longest-living things on Earth. There are species that require nothing to cling to while others can live inside rock, in the spaces between grains.3 In Ireland, 1,134 separate species of lichen have been recognised, according to the National Biodiversity Data Centre – i.e over 5% of Earth’s estimated total species right here on this little island.4

When we look at some growing on tree bark or rock, we are tempted to think of them as fungus, algae or even moss. Mosses are ancient enough life-forms and are plants, which algae are too and almost certainly much older. Fungi used to be considered plants but are so no longer and in their structure and digestion and also genes, are more akin and more closely related to animals. This will not be good news to vegetarians or vegans but the evidence is difficult to deny.5 Indeed there are some feoilséantóirí (word in Irish for a vegetarian and more apt in the context of this sentence) who already dislike eating many fungi because the texture reminds them of meat.

But lichens are neither fungi nor plants.

White and Map Lichen on rock, Old Kenmare: Killarney Rd Kerry. (Photo source: WikiIreland)

 

Lobaria Pulmonoria lichen, a leafy type, Killarney National Park (photo sourced from Internet)

So if lichens are not plant or fungus, what are they? Another kind of life-form? Well yes … and no. They are a combination of both, fungus and plant. At some point in the evolution of life on earth, logically after plants and after fungi had evolved, somehow some species of fungi combined with some species of alga and/or cyanobacteria6 and produced a symbiont or biont: lichen. Scientists maintain that the 20,000 estimated species did not evolve from one common ancestor but that different species appeared separately at different times during the history of the Earth.

Teloschistes chrysophthalmus on branches (image sourced from Internet)
Another map algae (Geographicus) on rock, a species that in a test has survived exposure to space vacuum and radiation, apparently unharmed. (Image sourced Internet)

Plants draw their nutrients from sun and elements in the soil (or in some cases, in the water). Fungi, like animals, cannot get their nutrients straight from sun or soil and need to break down their alimentation materials, whether flesh or plant, in order to feed on them. In doing so, fungi are important decomposing agents – in fact, the principal ones.

Vascular plants need roots not just to cling to soil but even more importantly, to draw up water and nutrients but algae don’t; when they have any kind of roots, it is to cling to a surface and that is exactly what the lichen needs too. Fungi extend and feed through root-like growths usually under the surface of what they are feeding upon, extending from the tips; they are not roots, however and break off easily. What we see of fungi is usually the spore-bearing parts above the surface, often much the smaller part of the organism.

Plants seem to grow above ground also by elongating their tips but in fact are extending from further back, adding cells to cells to lengthen the body. All plants need a constant supply of water (cacti and succulents store water but still need to draw on the supply to live). Fungi need damp conditions. But when combined into lichens, the new species can live without water for a considerable time. So, a marriage, as they say, “made in Heaven” … or perhaps in a Hell, an environment of very dry and hot conditions alternating with the very wet and cold , where the newly-wedded ancient algae and fungi set out to build their homes.

Some lichens contain not only algae combined with a fungus but also a cyanobacterium; this partner is capable of fixing nitrogen extracted from the air and is a valuable addition to the menage-a-trois.

It has been remarked by some that the marriage of plant and fungus is not an equal one, is not true symbiosis, since the fungal partner or symbiote benefits more than does the algal. The algal symbiote produces sugar through photosynthesis and the fungus only chitin, or hard structure, it is argued. However, if both partners (or three) are content with the arrangement, is that not a happy marriage? More seriously, the fungal partner may contribute other factors to the symbiosis of which scientists are only just becoming aware – for example, chemicals to repel organisms attempting to graze on them and protection from the sun.

And scientists do not treat them equally either, since the species of lichen is always determined and named by them according to the species of fungus, not of the alga or bacterium.

COLOURS IN THE RAIN

Xantheria parietina (image sourced on Internet)

So, if the claim is that we see them all around us, where are they? They may be seen on slate roof-tops, in patches of roughly circular white (not to be confused with pigeon or seagull excrement, which may also be in evidence). Yellow or orange patches are typically seen on stone, as is a black or dark brown one by the seaside. A bright yellow-green one may be seen on fallen twigs or on tree-bark, as may also a tufted-form green one growing on rock or tree.

Alga and lichen on plane tree during rain, Drumcondra, Dublin. (Photo: D.Breatnach)

The colours tend to be particularly vivid during or soon after rain when the cortex becomes translucent and, if there were no other reason to be grateful for the precipitation levels usual in Ireland, that would be reason enough, perhaps, should we take the time to admire the little things of beauty. Of course there are other reasons and as a Basque once said to me about the green of his native country and could perhaps even more accurately said about colour associated with the “Emerald Isle” — “It’s not green because we paint it.”

Some of the bright colours in lichens, produced by the fungus, are thought to be of use in protection from the rays of the sun and become more vivid after rain due to rapid absorption of water by the chlorophyl-holding part of the symbiont (or biont).

PIONEERS AND SURVIVORS

Lichina pygmaea – a black marine littoral species, this one photographed near the high-water mark. (Image sourced on Internet)

Lichens are considered “pioneer organisms” by botanists and geologists, i.e organisms that set out to colonise new territories. These maybe new territories in the sense that a geological change has exposed them to air, e.g from the seabed or from under ice, or from inside the earth by volcanic action or by tectonic plate collision.

Pioneer organisms need to be tough and adaptable and they often create footholds for other species, not quite so tough or adaptable, to follow after. However, given that logic dictates that algae and fungi existed before some of them combined to form lichens, the latter could not have been among the earliest colonisers of the Earth’s crust. On Earth then, they are later pioneers of newly-created inhospitable terrain.

May they be used to help create habitable environments elsewhere? It’s perhaps worth quoting these two paragraphs from Wikipedia in their entirety:

In tests, lichen survived and showed remarkable results on the adaptation capacity of photosynthetic activity with the simulation time of 34 days under Martian conditions in the Mars Simulation Laboratory (MSL) maintained by the German Aerospace Center (DLR).

The European Space Agency has discovered that lichens can survive unprotected in space. In an experiment led by Leopoldo Sancho from the Complutense University of Madrid, two species of lichen — Rhizocarpon geographicum7 and Xanthoria elegans — were sealed in a capsule and launched on a Russian Soyuz rocket 31 May 2005. Once in orbit, the capsules were opened and the lichens were directly exposed to the vacuum of space with its widely fluctuating temperatures and cosmic radiation. After 15 days, the lichens were brought back to earth and were found to be in full health with no discernible damage from their time in orbit.

Hieroglyphics lichen (Graphis scripta) on rock, Castle Coole, Enniskillen, County Fermanagh, Northern Ireland, October
Cladonia coccifera and Cladonia diversa or Pyxidata on branch in Ireland (also known as Pixy Cup and Devi’s Matchstick but “Pixy” sounds unlikely for a name in Ireland, more likely from Cornwall or elsewhere in south-west Britain).

In some areas, soil lichens help to bind the sand-crust or soil-crust together but lichens have also been shown to chemically attack stone, thereby helping to create soil. Lichens can also help create little environments where soil may be retained and seeds of plants germinate. However, like all species, lichens are out to help themselves and some produce chemicals to restrict the march of mosses (another pioneer species but more water-reliant), with which lichens would have to compete in many areas).

When growing on tree bark, lichens do not parasitise on the tree nor harm it in any way, merely using it as a secure base. Older trees are often covered with lichen and dead trees or branches more so, associating in some people’s minds the ill-health in a tree with the growth of lichen upon it. Circumstantial evidence may suggest the guilt of the lichen but it is completely a case of coincidence: lichen is slow-growing and the older the tree, the more time lichen has had to grow and extend upon it; the tree dies because it grows old.

Green Beard lichen, Usnea species, Cornwall (photographer: Jonathan Billingsworth). Usnea is very vulnerable to polution, particularly sulphur dioxide and will only grow like this when well away from such pollutants.
Lichen-covered apple tree (sourced: Irish Image Collection)

The lichen will survive the dead tree for a period but it is not the killer. Now come decomposers: insects, snails, slugs and especially, distant relatives of the lichens: fungi. Without concern for their relatives, the fungi, along with the other decomposers, will reduce the tree to soil ingredients and thereby deprive the lichens of their base but, in time, providing more soil for more trees to grow and for new generation of lichens to attach themselves to the bark.

The fungus is not too discriminating and a particular species may combine with different algae species; the resultant lichens may appear to be different species but (since 2014) will be classified as the same lichen species, i.e containing the same species of fungus.8

The alga can also exist independently in nature but the fungi cannot. Two species in two genera of green algae are found in over 35% of all lichens, but can only rarely be found living on their own outside of a lichen.9

A green frond-lichen, Evernia prunastri
(Image sourced at Internet)

Sex and Reproduction

It is only the fungal part of the symbiote that reproduces sexually. When doing so, it produces spores (as do ferns and mosses) which must find a compatible alga in order to produce a new lichen, a symbiote of the fungus of the parent fungus and a new alga.

Some lichens reproduce or extend asexually, advancing across a surface and merging with another of the same species.

Uses of lichens:

When we discuss “the use” of some thing we generally mean its use for humans; lichens no doubt have many uses for other organisms, whether as food for reindeer during non-growing seasons or as micro-environments for tiny creatures. But for humans, the uses are mostly in the areas of

  • dyes

  • drugs

  • environmental indicators

  • geological age indicators

Dyes and Pigments:

Dyes were made from the orange Xanthoria Parietina and the grey-green branched Parmelia Saxitillis to dye wools used in traditional tweed (Harris) weaving in the Scottish Highlands10 and I myself have had the second of the two pointed out to me by an Aran Islander woman as the source for the rarely-used green wool knitted into a geansaí (pullover or jumper). Material for other natural dyes exist for example in Ireland but the issues are how easily they are obtained, how true they dye and how long they remain the desired colour and shade.

“There are reports dating almost 2000 years old of lichens being used to make purple and red dyes. Of great historical and commercial significance are lichens belonging to the family Roccellaceae, commonly called “orchella weed” or “orchil”. Orcein and other lichen dyes have largely been replaced by synthetic versions.”11

We know that red and purple dyes were much sought after and in some medieval civilisations the wearing of those colours was restricted to certain social classes and even to one individual (e.g the purple for the Emperor). Once Europeans had gained familiarity with indigenous civilisations of Central and South America, the red dye obtained from the parasitic cochineal insect Dactylopius coccus became an important export product to Europe until the late 19th Century, when synthetic pigments and dyes were invented. Despite this development, traditional hand-made textile producers, for example in regions of Mexico, continued to use cochineal dyeing. However, health concerns associated with some or all of those synthetic colourings in food have once again created a demand for cochineal and cultivation of the insect is once again economically viable, with Peru being currently the main exporter.12

Drugs and Medicine:

There is reason to believe that metabolites produced by lichens may have antibiotic effects and usnic acid, the most commonly-studied metabolite produced by lichens, is being investigated as a possible bactericide, in particular against Staphylococcus and E.coli.13

Lichens were also used in European traditional medicine, in particular based on the theory that plants that resembled human organs would be efficacious in treatment of illness of those organs. Some American Indigenous people also used them in traditional medicine treatment.

Lichens as Indicators of Geological Age and of Pollution Levels:

The science of lichenometry is a relatively new one in which measuring the type and size of lichen is used to indicate the age of exposed rock. It takes the known slow growth-rate of different lichens to arrive at an estimate of how long the rock in question has been exposed. This can be used on rock formations, landslides, stone buildings and statuary.

The tolerance (or lack of tolerance) of different species of lichen to certain types of air and rain pollutant can be used as bio-indicators. In general the “frond” or “bushy” types are less resistant to some air pollutants and the flat or “crusty” types more so. Lichens take their water from the surfaces to which they are attached and from the air and are therefore quickly affected by the water quality in rain and air.

In Conclusion:

Readers may find it worthwhile to take some time to examine the lichens growing around us, to think about their unusual ‘domestic arrangements’ and their pioneering habits. Or to inventory them as indicators of the level and content of pollution in a specific area.

And in particular, to put on rainproof or resistant clothing and to view lichens during rainfall or at least very soon afterwards.

End.

 

Links:

http://www.irishlichens.ie/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lichen

http://www.biodiversityireland.ie/projects/biodiversity-inventory/taxonomic-groups/lichens/

http://www.habitas.org.uk/lichenireland/

http://www.irishtimes.com/life-and-style/homes-and-property/gardens/loving-lichen-1.1970168

Fungi closer to animals than plants (very short articles):

https://www.scienceabc.com/nature/how-are-mushrooms-more-similar-to-humans-than-plants.html

https://www.naturalnews.com/044200_fungi_animals_plants.html

http://www.brighthubeducation.com/science-homework-help/8061-relationship-between-animal-plant-and-fungi-phylogeny/

About Algae and Cyanobacteria:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Microalgae

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Algae

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cyanobacteria

About Cochineal and Social Rank by colour:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cochineal

http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/clothing-and-social-status

http://renaissanceclothing.blogspot.ie/2011/02/meaning-of-renaissance-and-medieval.html

http://www.libraryireland.com/Brehon-Laws/Classification-Society.php (last paragraph in this section)

About Drugs from Lichens:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Usnic_acid

About Lichens as Environmental and Geological Age Indicators:

See the Wikipedia article on lichens, also https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lichenometry

https://staff.concord.org/~btinker/gaiamatters/investigations/lichens/lichens.html

http://www.air-quality.org.uk/19.php

https://myscienceblast.com/myscienceblast/dating-landslides-with-lichen/

 

Footnotes:

1See Wikepedia link to article on Lichens.

2Ibid (as above).

3Ibid.

4See link to Biodiversity Data Centre website.

5See Science ABC link for example.

6A primitive plant form that used to be called blue-green algae; they are believed to have been their first mass oxygenator of the planet Earth.

7This species, also known as “the map lichen” is common enough on rocks in upland areas of Ireland and Britain (see articles on Lichens).

8See Wikipedia article on Lichens (link below).

9Ibid

10Ibid

11Ibid

12See Wikipedia link on Cochineal

13See Wikipedia link on Lichens, Medicinal use and the Wiki link on Usnic acid.