Friday, August 19, 2011

Botany for amnesics

I always enjoy visiting Cambridge, because I get to indulge myself with a floral fix at the University Botanic Garden. 

On Wednesday the city was bustling with tourists as ever. I was mistaken for a tourist by a very nice lady who suggested, after she saw me taking photos, that I might like to see the inside of Lloyds TSB on Sidney Street. Hmmm. Curious and although not an account holder, I snuck in. A rather plain building on the outside... a tiled master piece inside. Worth a peek.
A frustrating morning shopping but buying nothing, was followed by packed lunch on the wall outside Kings College Chapel listening to a busker, 
under the watchful gaze of Henry VIII (looking a little slimmer here than he might've in real life).
Then a walk past Peterhouse College...
...and the Fitzwilliam Museum (free entry and certainly worth a visit), in Trumpington Street...
...with its lions, who looked in dire need of the services of a prosthodontist.
On past the blooms of hedge bindweed, Calystegia sepium, our own morning glory, spilling out onto Trumpington Road...
...finally bringing me to the garden entrance.
I can't recommend it enough. At any time of year there is always something to see. The asters were looking marvellous; here Aster herveyi.
This is botany made easy, because everything is labelled. Even the humble but splendid little strawberry clover (Trifolium fragiferum), a favourite of mine, has it's own plot and plaque in my favourite bit of the garden; the systematic beds.
It's named for its inflated fruiting heads which look like furry strawberries.
And here, a rather straggly-looking saw-wort (Serratula tinctoria)...
...a scrummy plant that I am yet to see on my wanderings in the countryside. Does it look this small and scrawny in the wild?

Another gem I bumped into in the limestone rock garden was ground pine, Ajuga chamaepitys...

...a rare arable weed and a plant I have only seen once in the 'wild'.
I wanted to spend some time in the glasshouses on this visit.
The amazing yellow bloom is a Kahli ginger lily, Hedychium gardnerianum, from northern India. Smells lovely.
Even the door furniture is worth a picture...
...and this secret cupboard in the wall. 
They really should put some old botany books in there.
As (nearly) everything was labelled for exotic and cultivated plant ignoramuses like me, I can provide names for all the lustrous blooms I saw (except the yellow climber above which I forgot to get the name for). Here's a selection.

Echinopsis spachiana, a columnar cactus from South America. The flower was roughly the size of my head.

Heliconia rostrata, aka the false bird of paradise or lobster claw, another South American beauty pollinated by hummingbirds.
Thunbergia mysorensis, the Indian clock vine.
Aeschynanthus tricolor from Java
Dioscorea bulbifera, the incredible air potato, a species of yam from Africa and Asia.
It really looks just like potato suspended in the air. It's native to tropical Asia and now invasive in America where it was introduced in 1905 (see here). It's a vigorous climber, having underground tubers and these potato-like aerial bulbils (an aerial tuber).

Staying in the tropical room, here is Hymenocallis littoralis or the beach spider lily from coastal Central America. The flower looks almost alien and something I might expect to buy on the zokalo on Babylon 5. (Ah! Just remembered. They remind me of the star laces Londo gives Adira.)

Then into the carnivorous room where a polite notice states...
I'd never quite imagined, for some reason, that North American pitcher plants (Saracenia spp) have flowers, but they do.
Finally back into the corridor for the lush purple flowers of the glory bush (Tibouchina urvilleana) from Brazil.
The delicate blooms of the Australian Viola hederacea.
And the weird fruits of Clerodendrum schweinfurthii from tropical West Africa.
I had a wonderful and relaxing afternoon. But, although I certainly got my fix, and saw many exotic and beautiful plants, that cannot compare, for me, to the thrill I get when I find rare or unusual wild-flowers on a walk in the countryside. Saw-wort is on my personal hit-list for next year and I'd like to see ground pine again. It's just not quite the same seeing them labelled in a garden.

On my way home I noticed this poster at Hitchin station.

I find it disturbing that I live in a society where someone, be they pregnant, elderly or whatever, might need to carry a card in order to be offered a seat on the train by a fellow passenger. Humph.

Just a quickie before I flop into bed; a woody root witch I found last year when I visited the glasshouses. I forgot to pay her a visit yesterday. I wonder if she's still there?


  1. Interesting post!
    Presumably John Ray had an influence on the gardens?

    Seeing sawwort and ground-pine in a botanical garden is like ticking bald ibises in the zoo :-). Have you visited the Zoological museum, which is small but diverting?

  2. Hi Steve
    Thanks :-)

    I don't know about John Ray (1627-1705) and the actual garden but he had a huge influence on the study botany. The Cambridge Plant Sciences website has this lovely quote from Ray, who was passionate about botany and apparently looked for someone at Cambridge to teach him…

    ‘But, to my astonishment, among so many masters of learning and luminaries of letters I found not a single person who was deeply versed in Botany, and only one or two who had even a slight acquaintance with the subject . . . so why should not I, endowed with ample leisure, if not with great ability, try to remedy this deficiency . . . ?

    He ended up teaching botany and writing the Cambridge flora and then an English flora. What a guy!

    Never tried to ‘tickle an ibis’ (I’ve lead a sheltered life) or even visited the Zoological Museum (so much to do in Cambridge…), but that is one to put on the list for winter visits (I mean the museum, not the ibis…) ;-)


  3. Oh, you said 'ticking', not 'tickling'. I thought you'd gone a bit whacky :0 M

  4. Henry VIII was quite athletic and shapelier in his youth, though perhaps not as represented in the Starz series of the Tudors. They ignored his red hair in the casting as well.

    Here is a picture of his armour from early in his life:

    Don't despair of the state of our society, I think this card might help avoid embarrassment. Have you ever offered your seat to a very fat woman in the mistaken belief that she was pregnant? It was almost as awful as visiting a friend and ignoring the fact that she was pregnant because she was usually that shape. There are, of course, many non-visible disabilities that make it difficult to stand.

    In an effort to break from the apparent theme of my comment, I have wanted to grow some of the hardy bulbiferous yams to see if I could get a meal off them. If they are that invasive I will forgo that and grow some more delicate, nesh exotics.

  5. Hi Pat
    Thanks for your comment.
    I've not watched the recent series. I still recall Keith Michell's performance in the 70s. He remains Henry for me!
    Re. the priority seat card. I am sad because I see examples of people not offering seats when I travel on crowded trains. I feel the card puts the onus on the elderly, disabled, pregnant, .....person to make the move to ask for a seat. If we are a society that regards our responsibilities towards others, as more important than shouting for our own rights and entitlements, then a card should not be needed. I am sad that there are priority seat cards because it suggests that we, as a society are not mindful of those travelling around us and sensitive to their needs. Cards don't address the cause, they treat a symptom.
    And to return to the yams, the air potato is invasive in Florida. I'm unsure about elsewhere or other species of yams. Cool plant though. Sounds fun to try to grow one.

  6. The Chinese and Japanese yams sold by Chiltern seeds are perfectly hardy (to zone 5 according to pfaf)and very bulbiferous. I would hate to be responsible for introducing the next knotweed. I can cope with only having our lovely native yam, even if it is horribly poisonous.

    I think it is a bit much to expect bus travellers to notice what is going on around them all the time. I usually do and often offer my seat to the elderly. However, quite often I am reading a book or newspaper or just trolling through a field of poppies in my memory. At those times it seems practical to me that someone have a card they can show me as they ask for a seat. I have known someone with a brittle bone disease that was not obvious to look at but would have caused him to suffer if he stood.

  7. Hi Pat
    Yes, I can take your point about the practicality of priority cards. But it still makes me sad that someone can't just ask me for a seat. I'd willingly give up mine if asked; no card would be required. One can volunteer or give up a seat when asked. I can see that it takes courage for someone to ask for a seat, if they are not obviously less than able. So a card for someone in that situation might encourage them to ask for a seat rather than suffer in silence. But it would be good not to need them. Mel