4 November 2015

Specious Names

The Mersey on a Dull Sunday Afternoon

Walking down by the Mersey last Sunday I began to despair of finding anything to write about. The river banks have been mown into one long strip of drying sticks. Where is the story there? Luckily just before I despondently tramped home I stumbled across a patch of Autumn Crocuses craning their necks out from the dry grass.

You would think you’d be confident in identifying these as Autumn Crocus, they are crocus shaped and it is autumn, but no, that would be a specious assertion.

There are three flowers of similar appearance that pop up this time of year. They come in shades of purple, with bright yellow stamens, grow out from the parent corm with long white tubes, and none have accompanying leaves. One common name for them is ‘Naked Ladies’, because they are not clothed by surrounding leaves.

To the casual passerby out for a Sunday stroll the distinction is unimportant. The aesthetic value of the pretty flowers is not enhanced by knowing precisely which species they are, but there is always a story to discover if you ask ‘What is that?’

Like a folk tale of yore it begins with a swapping of identities. Autumn Crocus is also known as Meadow Saffron, both are naked ladies, but true Meadow Saffron is not a saffron-bearing crocus at all, but a lily (Colchicum autumnale).

This lily is bit of a femme fatale. She contains a chemical colchicine that is used to treat gout, but take too much and it turns to a poison, which has no antidote. Be careful on those foraging trips.

Meadow Saffron is one of those rare plants that are native to Britain. Whereas the plant it shares its name with is not. The genuine Autumn Crocus, Crocus nudiflorus (once again we are back to naked ladies) was brought here from the Pyrenees by mediaeval monks in need of something to spice up their dull monastic gruel. The spice saffron is harvested from the Crocus sativus flower which doesn’t grow well in Britain, particularly here in the Northwest, so the monks grew a less potent form of crocus, but one that could survive our cold damp conditions. It was also used as a medicine to treat malaria, common in the times when much of the land was still marsh. Thus it began as a cultivated plant, but escaped into the wild, and was first spotted there not long ago in the 18th century.

The tale hasn’t finished. Not all crocuses that grow in autumn have travelled the same journey. The ones I found last Sunday may look the same but come from somewhere else. If you look close you can see the flowers have darker veins than the monk’s crocus. Their binomial name is speciosus, which means showy, and one of its common names is Showy Autumn Crocus. Its attractive nature is the reason for its introduction into the Victorian gardens of Britain.

At this point we enter the world of the great plant hunters and their early attempts to turn their interest in plants into a science. Our showy crocus first appears in the records in the early 19th century. Though, if you think about it, it had existed unnamed by bewhiskered Victorian gentlemen for thousands of years before.

A German, Friedrich von Bieberstein, sent by Catherine the Great to do some botanising on her southern borders, and William Herbert, Dean of Manchester, were two men who corresponded together about this particular crocus that had been discovered in the lands round the Black Sea; with it finally being called Bieberstein’s Crocus.

Herbert was an expert on crocuses and other bulbous plants. He grew many varieties at home and experimented with hybridisation. His book ‘A History of the Species of Crocus’ was published in 1847. He was doing this at the time people were shaping the concept of evolution, and his work with plant breeding was noted by Darwin:

‘no one has treated this subject with more spirit and ability’

However, being a clergyman Herbert didn’t fully agree with the Theory of Evolution, but chose to believe instead that species are simply varieties of one type, rather than separately evolved distinct species, thus not differing far from God’s original design. Funnily enough this is an explanation of species given in a Jehovah’s Witness pamphlet that recently got posted through the door.

This long story, which I’ve simplified for the sake of your patience, is yet another illustration of why you must keep asking ‘What is that?’ Because beneath the glib answer ‘a flower’ are the tangled roots of (wo)man’s relationship with nature: medicine, food, science.

What you see on Sunday strolls is not nature’s story, but humankind’s.