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Jonathan Drori on the Stories Behind a Selection of British Plants

Posted on 12th April 2021 by Mark Skinner

Having already been Around the World in 80 Trees, Jonathan Drori returns with Around the World in 80 Plants, a sumptuously illustrated guide to the globe's finest flora. In this exclusive piece, Drori highlights some fascinating facts about some British plants that we may think we know only too well, accompanied by some stunning illustrations from the book by Lucille Clerc. 

Artwork © Lucille Clerc

Around the World in 80 Plants has some strange and surprising stories about plants from, well... all over the world. But here are a few British ones that I think are often underappreciated. You can enjoy them in spring or early summer without even having to visit a botanical garden.

Dandelions

Dandelions, with those familiar spherical seed heads are popular with children but often regarded by adults as weeds . Each globe comprises dozens of flimsily attached seeds, each one supported by a tiny parasol of downy bristles, like a miniature chimney-sweep’s brush. These little parachutes help the seeds to fly, by creating a tiny halo of spinning air just above it, like a horizontal smoke ring (only without the smoke, of course).

Break a dandelion root and you’ll see it ooze white latex – it’s there to seal wounds and as part of the plant’s defences against insects. It turns out that dandelion latex and the latex from rubber trees are remarkably similar, and a close relative, the Russian dandelion has a promisingly high yield. To reduce the need for tropical forests to be destroyed to make way for rubber plantations, there’s been a recent EU programme to breed high-yielding dandelions; tyres of dandelion rubber are already on the market. Meanwhile, the French still use dandelions for salad greens, for ‘coffee’ made from their roots and to make cramaillotte, a tangy but otherwise nondescript jelly from the flowers.

Nettles

The common stinging nettle has no gaudy blooms. Instead, it creates little garlands of minute and subtle blossom and trusts its pollen, not to insects, but to the wind. Female flowers form cream arches while the males, dangling in delicate lilac strings, sport tiny catapults that launch finger-length explosions of pollen to the air; an unexpected delight, if you look closely against the light of a summer morning.

Agreed, nettles are a pesky irritant on country walks but spare a thought for the Roman soldiers given the worst posting in their empire – Hadrian’s Wall. Desperate for the sensation of warmth, they used to flagellate themselves with bundles of nettles. And please, appreciate those stinging hairs – each one a hypodermic needle filled with noxious chemicals – for what they are; the plant’s defence against herbivores, which also provides safe shelter for butterfly larvae.

Saffron Crocuses

The saffron crocus has cheerful, purple petals, in eye-catching contrast to their burgundy-red stigmas, which have evolved to catch pollen from other plants. It is these red stigmas that comprise the spice known as saffron. Each one is tiny, which explains why saffron is the world’s most expensive spice; it takes 150,000 painstakingly gathered flowers to make just one kilo. The scent of saffron is a long hot summer, a snooze in dried meadow-grass, and the enveloping and moist fragrance of gentle rain on warm hay. Lurking though, there is something penetrating, muskier and altogether more beguiling. In 14th century Europe, when saffron gained a reputation as a preventative for the plague, the price of saffron spiralled and pirates, gangsters and fraudsters stepped in. Travelling merchants were ambushed and in the Mediterranean, cargoes were looted.>

Tulips

What could be more English than tulips in a city park? Actually, they’re native to the dry hills of central Asia and take their name from the Persian word for ‘turban’, whose shape reminds us of the flower’s bud. Some tulip species have patches of microscopic ridges on their petals. The structure interacts with light to create a halo of ultraviolet and blue, to which bees are especially sensitive but which we perceive, if at all, as a fleeting shimmer around the very darkest cultivated varieties. By the late-16th century, tulips had reached the Netherlands and plant breeders created gaudy hybrids, some of them infected with plant viruses that caused streaking on the petals. This was at a time when wealthy Dutch merchants were looking for investment opportunities, and the combination of rarity and an over-enthusiastic public led to ‘tulip mania’; bulbs changed hands for crazy sums until in 1637, after a three-year speculative frenzy, the bubble burst.

Flax Flowers

Flax flowers mirror the deep turquoise of a spring sky and are delightfully delicate, yet the rest of the plant is hardy and famed for its fibre, woven for linen. For hundreds of years, right up to the beginning of the twentieth century, it was the source of the most important fibre  - and not just for clothing. The fibres keep their strength when wet – a vital property for sails and ropes in the time of fighting sail and the merchant navy, when agility and speed were everything. The scientific name, Linum, has given us linen of course, and linseed, (which are flax seeds) and linoleum (containing linseed oil). Meanwhile, smooth linen fabric covering a coarser material underneath was called ‘lining’, and luxurious flaxen underwear protecting sensitive bottoms from itchy wool, have bestowed on us, ‘lingerie'.

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