Summer's extreme weather has generated a floral phantasmagoria

Inside the life of plants.

"An everlasting source of pleasure": John Ruskin believed that plants were not merely functional, but objects of beauty designed for human enjoyment. Photo: Corbis

It’s been the Summer of Trudge. A raft of books, celebrity pilgrimages, lit-fest readings on the hoof, have all homed in on the notion that ritually treading in the old ones’ footsteps, or following some insistent motherlode in the land itself, is the pathway to revelation. I, too, enjoy a stroll, but have found that a spell slumped on the turf is a better way of sorting out my own head. I cite the current doyen of transcendental saunterers, Edward Thomas, in support. In an essay in The Heart of England he writes: “I have found only two satisfying places in the world in August – the Bodleian Library and a little reedy, willowy pond” (thus granting kinship to landscape and text as early as 1906).

I, too, am sitting by a willowy pond, on our village green, and contemplating an unspectacular but mightily symbolic plant. It’s growing straight out of the water through a posy of spear-shaped leaves, and bears tiny, three-petalled blooms, striated with pink, at the end of the flower-stalks, which radiate from the main stem in whorls that diminish in diameter the closer they are to the tip of the plant. It is called water-plantain, Alisma plantago-aquatica, and looks rather like an old-fashioned wireless mast. But John Ruskin thought that its proportions were the type of divine beauty.

If the reader will take the trouble to measure the lengths [of the ascending flower-stalks] and compare them he will find that . . . the uppermost AE = 5/7 of AD, AD = 6/8 of AC, and AC = 7/9 of AB; a most subtle diminishing proportion [and] typical of that unity which we attribute to God.

And he argued that the perfect curvature of Alisma’s leaf and its interior ribs, echoed in the slope of glaciers and the side of bay leaf, appeared beautiful to us because it approached the infinity of God.

Why the Almighty had bestowed so much less aesthetic attention to the jazzy profiles of oak leaves and the unholy chaos of a bramble patch he never explains. But Ruskin’s troubled mind was full of such contradictions. No one looked at plants with such loving attention, and no one disrespected more their integrity as living things. Ruskin was appalled at utilitarian explanations of their forms and behaviour. He derided the process of photosynthesis (“beautiful” to many of us) because it made us look at leaves as no more than “gasometers”. Beauty of form in plants had nothing whatever to do with their own needs but was installed by “the Deity to be an everlasting source of pleasure to the human mind”. Alisma’s stalk-length ratios are roughly as Ruskin measured, but why this is so, and whether it is of any significance, especially to the plant itself, isn’t a question often asked.

Faced with the floral phantasmagoria gen­erated by the extreme weather this summer, we’ve all become a bit Ruskinian, eyes widened and imaginations frozen by prodigious growths and precocious appearances. When the mild and drought-dogged winter coaxed plants into flower months before their “proper” season, normally rational gardeners began talking about nature becoming “confused”. It was as pure an example of the pathetic fallacy, the assumption that organisms with hundreds of millions of years of experience shared our wobbliness in bad weather.

But then our species has never been any good at getting inside the life of plants. We like their looks and enjoy the masterfulness of cultivating them, and yet, like Ruskin, we don’t want to believe that they might have intelligent agendas of their own. Among all the acutely observed and brilliantly comprehended animals that prowl the cave paintings of southern Europe, there is not a single plant to be seen. It is a curious and telling omission. Green things fed and sheltered Palaeolithic people, drove the movements of toe migrating herds they lived on, provided the hallucinogenic drugs that may have helped them conjure up their transfixing images of aurochs and wild horses. But plants lacked obvious “spirit”, and therefore offered no opportunity for empathy.

Only a handful of carvings on bone survive. One is from about 15,000 years ago. It’s a simple, scratched image, a stalk decked with thin, spear-shaped leaves, rising up the shaft of what looks like a thigh bone, and spreading – just as a tree does – as the bone widens. It has a compelling sense of vitality, and nothing as remotely lifelike – and life-full – would appear again until the Middle Ages.

Unnatural selection

It’s late July and I’ve been meandering round the south Norfolk lanes, wondering if climate shock has cleared the cataract that exists between the locals and the inner life of their vegetable surroundings. The wild plants on the roadsides are continuing the astonishing displays of the spring, which began with dense, tremulous carpets of cowslips in the February gales, giant puffballs in April (four months early) and moon daisies four feet tall by May. Now the verges are billowing with more sumptuous textures: Tyrian drapes of tufted vetch and vaporous clouds of lady’s bedstraw. A dry spring followed by biblical inundation – enough stress to quicken reproductive biochemistry and then the raw material to achieve it – is relished by temperate species, which have been through it all before, many times.

But the same hasn’t happened with the fussier plants of cultivation. The roadsides at this time of year are usually full of the orange-box stalls and wheelbarrows of cottagers playing at street traders to offload their surpluses. But they’re empty at the moment. The carrots haven’t germinated and the broad beans are a month late.

Things don’t look any more promising out in the fields. The wheat-ears are fat enough, but are only just beginning to ripen. There are ominous signs of grey mildew here and there, and the fungicide sprayers have been out, leaving a sickly scent in the air, reminiscent of cheap 1970s perfume. Earlier in the year, the spray-booms were drizzling neonicotinoid insecticides over the oilseed rape, leaving trails of dead honeybees in their wake (rape is one of their favourite sources of nectar).

It is because scenes like this make me so infuriated that I confess to being a fence-sitter on GM crops, which could make chemical spraying unnecessary, or at least less routine, by splicing genes to generate pest-deterrent chemicals into the crops themselves. Natural evolution itself works by gene wizardry. Oak trees have been evolving insect-avoidance chemistry for aeons. When their leaves are attacked by moth caterpillars they generate air-borne pheromones, which prompt neighbouring trees to increase their production of caterpillar-deterrent tannins.

Up here we see plants’ self-genetic manipulation in fast-frame. We are privileged to have an abundance of wild orchid species, a young and still rapidly evolving branch of the botanical family tree, repeatedly throwing up new mutants, sports, cross-breeds and tentatively experimental varieties which may or may not become new species. There are a dozen true species within three miles of my home, and the same number again of hybrids and sheer oddities. The green-winged orchid (hold the flower’s hood against the sky and you will see the art-nouveau veining that gives the species its name) bloomed in unprecedented numbers on our common this April, and throws up varieties from pure white to deepest purple. Spotted and marsh orchids hybridise to produce giant offspring, though we don’t have the Continental cross between monkey and man orchids (the tribe has many members whose flowers have by happenstance zoomorphic resemblances) that botanical wags refer to as the “missing link orchid”.

Our most beautiful local species is the marsh helleborine, which haunts the open areas of fens and is the closest, in miniaturised form, to the tropical orchids found in florists’ shops. Each stem has up to 20 blooms, and under the starched, three-pointed cowl, the flower’s lower lip is pure white, frilled and crimped at the edges, like a fop’s handkerchief. But the most remarkable and best-loved of all is the bee orchid, whose extraordinary, chimerical flowers – pink fairy wings joined to a brown bumblebee’s body – seem to transcend the world of plants altogether, to be ornaments of velvet and porcelain that have been animated by the sun.

Evolutionary ecologists believe the bloom developed its extraordinary form to dupe real bees. The bee mistakes the flower for one of its own, and engages in what is called “pseudo-copulation”. In the process it inadvertently picks up pollen, which it transfers to its next port of call. The trouble is that such behaviour has never been witnessed in Britain, and the bee orchid is entirely and successfully self-pollinating here. Darwin was miffed at such a rebuff to his theories of natural selection and predicted that the waste of energy required for such a gratuitous, flamboyant growth would soon make the bee orchid extinct. But not here, not yet.

As if to prove the point, we have a colony that sprang up in the grass under our washing-line. Some of them are of the beautiful sport called var. chlorantha, in which the pink “wings” are replaced by ones of a ghostly greenish yellow.

“Forms most beautiful and wonderful,” Darwin rhapsodised in the final paragraph of On the Origin of Species. For all the dogmatism of his theory, he knew that plants could, like the bee orchid, be transgressive and aberrant. They might not have brains, but they have what amounts to a chemical nervous system. They can react to sound, light, smell and electromagnetic radiation. They communicate with other organisms and with each other, as in the social networking of browsed oak trees. Some can even move about. Dodder, sadly now an endangered species in East Anglia, can do almost all of these things. Dodder is a parasite, chiefly on heather and gorse. It has no chlorophyll, no leaves, no attachment whatever to the ground. The thread that comprises its identity as a plant slithers about like a slow-motion snake, “sniffing” for a host plant. When the tip (the dodder’s “nose”) registers one, it heads decisively off towards it, twines round the hapless victim and drives in its parasitic suckers.

In a few weeks, when I’ve mown our meadow, a curious efflorescence will appear on the grass. It resembles loosely scrambled egg, or (to less respectful eyes) dog’s vomit. It is a slime mould, a kind of organism about which very little is understood. It seems to share the characteristics of a primitive animal, a plant and a virus. All that can be said is that this splodge on the grass is a colony of tens of thousands of indi­vidual amoeba-like cells, which have come together as a social organism, and crawl about like a slug until they find a suitably bright and warm location in which to reproduce.

Fabulous fungi

Slime moulds were once thought to be fungi, which in turn were believed to be plants before they were shunted off into a living kingdom all of their own. Beyond a few edible species, we mostly encounter fungi as moulds and toxins, malign agents of entropy, and view their role in the great scheme of things as being roughly on a par with that of head lice. But they outnumber plants by a ratio of six to one, and they may hold the key to some of the biological revolutions to come.

In unit 4 in the abandoned nuclear reactor at Chernobyl, there is a vast fungal mould flourishing on the walls. It is rich in melanin (which protects us against ultraviolet light) and has been exposed to annual doses of radiation ten times that which would cause severe radiation sickness in humans. What is most extra­ordinary, however, and unsettling, is that it is using radioactivity in the same way that green plants use sunlight, converting subatomic particles (and thus neutralising them) into nutrients for itself.

I haven’t a clue how I should feel about this prodigy, which seems both ecologically redemptive and a gift for every environmental contrarian. Nor can I guess how Ruskin would have reacted to such an abominable contrast to divine beauty which seems nonetheless to be challenging the “storm cloud” of misused technology he famously saw as civilisation’s greatest threat.

Richard Mabey's latest book is "The Perfumier and the Stinkhorn" (Profile, £9.99)