Earlier this week I wrote about plants at the National Botanic Gardens of Ireland which would be pollinated by beetles, geckos and lemurs in their natural habitats. There were too many fun facts to fit into one post! Here are a few more plants which deserved a special mention…
Many of the orchids in the palm house were in bloom when my Dad and I visited at the end of February. Each one is perfectly evolved for pollinator-specific relationships. They have landing platforms for bees, pungent odours to attract flies, or they imitate insects like our own native bee orchid.
This is where the National Botanic Gardens boasts another pollination wonder from Madagascar – Angraecum sesquipedale. In 1862, Darwin theorised that this long-nectaried orchid could only be pollinated by a moth with an equally long proboscis, which would have co-evolved with the plant. In 1907, more than 20 years after Darwin passed away, that very moth (Xanthopan morganii praedicta) was found in Madagascar.
Finally, we were treated to some real pollination in action. We spotted a queen Bombus terrestris/lucorum fuelling up on the flowers of a Pieris sp.
Queen bees emerge early to begin searching for nest sites in places such as the lovely untidy, tussocky bases of hedgerows. Early flowering plants are essential to their survival, so let those dandelions and other “weeds” bloom! Don’t mow, let it grow!
My dad and I were late season visitors to the National Botanic Gardens of Ireland’s Hidden February Blossoms tour at the very end of last month. Despite our tardiness, the tour guide diligently sought out each and every plant species that was still in flower, and had something equally fascinating to say about every non-blooming thing in between.
As someone who gets a kick out of plant-animal interactions, all my favourite facts were about pollination. Did you know that Magnolia is such an ancient plant it predates the evolution of bees, and is pollinated by a wide range of beetle species instead? Pollination researcher Beatriz Moisset describes the relationship perfectly:
“Beetles are very clumsy at their task; sometimes they get carried away and eat parts of the flowers along with the pollen they find there. Their mouth parts are made for chewing…so they can’t be blamed for their sloppiness. The flowers, in turn, are adapted to this rough treatment…”
The excitement on my face following this revelation ensured that the subject matter of our tour veered towards pollination as much as towards the original theme of winter flowers!
Moving along into the curvilinear range, designed by Robert Turner and constructed in a mere quarter of a century, we were introduced to the rare Nesocodon mauritianus. Its blue, bell-shaped flowers drip with nectar as orange as cough-syrup. The pollination of this species remained a mystery until 2006 when researchers discovered that two other plants with coloured nectar on its island home of Mauritius were pollinated by Phelsuma day geckos. Hansen, Beer and Müller (2006) demonstrated that Phelsuma ornata geckos prefer coloured nectar to clear nectar (which most other flowers contain).
“In flowering plants, coloured nectar could additionally function as an honest signal that allows pollinators to assert the presence and judge the size of a reward prior to flower visitation, and to adjust their behaviour accordingly, leading to increased pollinator efficiency.”
In other words, coloured nectar allows the geckos to spot and choose their lunch and tells them where to pay. But not all geckos are such honest nectar customers. Here is a paper featuring stunning shots of a Phelsuma stealing nectar from mangrove flowers in Madagascar, bypassing the pollen entirely! Unlike Nesocodon mauritianus, the mangrove Sonneratia alba has white flowers which bloom at night so it can also attract the more helpful bats and moths.
I can’t mention day geckos without showing you a photo of Phelsuma antanosy, a species I was researching with SEED Madagascar. I have observed them licking clear nectar from small flowers. I wonder how useful they were being in terms of pollen transportation!
After paying homage to the rhododendrons, azalias, andromedas and witch hazel, all brightening up wintry grey Ireland with their dazzling colours, we entered the palm house. And there stood the plant which takes me back to Madagascar most nostalgically of all. The Traveller’s Palm.
Cue the compulsory discussion about the origin of its common name: Stab it and out flows water to quench your thirst on a long journey. It might be stagnant and full of bugs, but as a last resort it could probably save you from death by dehydration. You can also use its leaves as an umbrella or a parasol, or for covering food on the long journey from the mountains to the market. The leaves grow east to west so you can use them like a compass. Or is it north to south? Or do they actually at all? Because I’ve seen them do both, so maybe I’ve misunderstood something, but I would not like to count on it if I was lost in the bush. This is where the facts always start to become a bit alternative. Can anyone shed light on this mystery?
Our guide then revealed the pollinators of the Traveller’s Palm: lemurs! The plant co-evolved with ruffed lemurs, whose fluffy faces make the perfect pollen brush! How I lived in Madagascar for 16 months without learning this is a mystery. Too busy with my nose in the undergrowth looking for insects and frogs, perhaps!
Death Cap, Destroying Angel, Amethyst Deceiver, Panther Cap, Barefoot Amanita, Charcoal Eyelash, Yellow Fairy Cup, Devil’s Bolete, Witches’ Butter… The exotic “common” names for Irish and British species read like a spell book. A catalogue of human suspicions and accusations, promises of seduction and plenty.
I heard some of these names for the first time at an exhibition of Irish fungi at the National Botanic Gardens in September. As mycologists Maria Cullen and Howard Fox regaled us members of the Dublin Naturalists’ Field Club with bizarre facts and folklore, mushroom foraging began to sound like Russian roulette, or meddling with the occult.
We are right to be somewhat wary of fungi. A representative from the Poisons Information Centre, invited by Maria and Howard, spoke to us of an Asian expatriate who mistook our Death Cap for the edible Paddy Straw Mushroom, used frequently in Asian cuisine. The result was a liver transplant, but could have been much worse.
A fungus has even been accused of triggering the Salem witch trials. Claviceps purpurea (Fr.), or Ergot, grows on grains such as rye, a staple food source in Salem at the time of the “witchcraft” outbreak. Ergot contains ergotamine, related to LSD, the consumption of which can cause a burning sensation from nerve damage in the limbs (known as St. Anthony’s Fire), psychotic behaviour, convulsions and hallucinations – all symptoms recorded in the unfortunate Salem “witches”.
This theory was first proposed by a psychology major, called Linnda Caporael, who found that there was plenty of warm, damp weather around Salem in 1691. Perfect conditions for the fungus to thrive. You can read more about it in this article taken from the very reliable-sounding Uncle John’s Heavy Duty Bathroom Reader.
Maria Cullen suggested that the women might have been the first to develop the symptoms because they scoffed a sneaky rye scone before the men got home for dinner. And who is going to eat leftover rye scones baked by a witch? Yet she was quick to assure us before we left that fungi are not out to get us. The main reason they possess such powerful toxins is so they can break down the cellulose in the organic matter they consume.
Indeed, many fungi could be considered friends, providing antibiotics, dyes, delicious risotto and many more products that we use. Even Ergot has gone some way to redeeming itself, as a treatment for migraines.
Doting on a roundy little dumpling of a Boletus mushroom, I wonder if a mushroom would feel bad if it knew it had poisoned someone, letting my anthropomorphantasies get entirely carried away. Then Maria tells me that some similar species contain tubes that lure tiny insects in and valves that stop them from ever getting out again, and I wonder…
Moral of the story: Just like in the human world, there are harmful mushrooms and helpful mushrooms, but they’re all just trying to get along in life and digest their environment.
The vegetable garden at the National Botanic Gardens of Ireland is bursting with colour. Alongside their now fully organic array of heritage breed fruit and vegetables grows an abundance of flowers.
These blooms are not just pretty faces. They provide nectar and pollen forage for helpful insects such as parasitoid wasps, who will keep your cabbage caterpillar population in check, and some species of hoverfly*:, whose larvae are very effective aphid consumers.
A happy population of hoverfly larvae can munch their way through 70-80 per cent of a greenfly infestation (Gardening Know How) and, as adults, will help to pollinate your garden plants. I’m getting to know these useful, cleverly disguised creatures at the moment, as I survey some pollinator-friendly sites for South Dublin County Council. Michael Viney, whose column was the only part of the Irish Times I read for my entire youth, is also a fan, and recently wrote an admiring tribute to the Marmalade hoverfly, Episyrphus balteatus.
Some flowering plants, such as nasturtiums, marigolds, borage, fennel, rosemary and chives, will also repel insects that you don’t want around your vegetables, such as carrot fly. These secrets of the national veg patch were revealed to me, my dad, and a large enthusiastic crowd of veggie food fans at An Evening with Cornucopia. Part of a series called Feasting from Nature’s Plate, the event featured Swedish chef Eddie Eriksson (surprisingly no Muppets references were made, though after reading this article I want to apologise to Eddie for even mentioning them here) and Organic Gardener Joan Rogers. A fascinating tour of the vegetable garden was followed by mouth watering demonstrations, salads, juices and dessert, and an astonishing amount was learnt!
I was particularly blown away by the tale of the Three Sisters – squash, corn and beans – who grow in community, depending on each other’s beneficial company. Native American farming societies interplant these three crops side by side in the same mound. The corn provides a support for the bean vines. The beans fix nitrogen in the soil and stabilise the corn in a strong wind. The leaves of the squash provide natural mulch to protect the roots and soil moisture. And at the end of the growing season, the left over plant matter can be dug into the soil as compost.
I am fascinated by these interactions and cooperations between species – corn and bean, human and plant, insect and dinner. I recommend planting some of your vegetable garden with some insect-friendly flowers so you can witness it for yourself.
Single instead of double flowered varieties: double flowered varieties provide almost no nectar and pollen for pollinators
Perennials over annuals: perennial plants are generally better sources of pollen and nectar
Do you see pollinators visiting it? When choosing plants to buy at a garden centre, you will quickly realise what flowers pollinators visit most. Also keep an eye out for the Royal Horticultural Society’s “Perfect for Pollinators” logo, which is now used by many suppliers of garden plants
Letting an area of your garden grow wild and seeing which wild flowers come up is also a great way to give nature what it needs.
While you wait for them to grow, a couple of events remain in the Botanic Gardens’ Feasting from Nature’s Plate series, and they are well worth attending!
*Edit: An original version of this post made a really clever pun out of the fact that some hoverflies are called drone flies. I’ve since been corrected – only Eristalis tenax can claim this name, and its larvae do not eat aphids. Plenty of others do though, so keep growing those flowers amongst your veg!