During this pandemic season there has been a clamber for good storytelling. Fiction sales have increased and streaming services are working overtime.
However, some of the best stories sit right outside your window, or on your window sill in a pot, or found dotted wild along the path as you take your daily walk. What I’ve found is that plants have the most fascinating histories, names, and stories.
Here, I have shared some of the ones I have found most interesting and the places you might encounter them during this lockdown period. Some are exotic immigrants, now commonly found in this country. Others are native species.
The humble house plant
Monstera deliciosa. A popular house plant, the monstera is a tropical plant from the Araceae family which can grow to huge heights in the jungles of south Mexico and Panama. It’s name translates to ‘delicious monster’ which is apt for two reasons. First, it is also known by the name ‘swiss cheese plant’, due to its distinctive holed leaves. Secondly, it’s a good example of a plant that works fine as a houseplant but, if let into the wild of a country it’s not native to, it can be a bit of a monster. It will compete with the native species and it has been an invasive plant in Seychelles, Hawaii, Ascension Island and Society Island.
Staghorn fern. This is a tropical plant family native to the Philippines, Southeast Asia, Indonesia, Australia, Madagascar, Africa, and America. Here, it can be mostly found growing on trees and rocks and is known for its highly variable and unusual growth habits. For example, it can also be grown in sphagnum moss or on a piece of wood, hence people sometimes displaying it indoors as an animal friendly ‘deer mount’ alternative, with the fern’s ‘antler-like’ distinctive leaves adding to its resemblance.
Codariocalyx motorius. Known as the ‘dancing plant’ is definitely one of the most fun on this list. Native to Asia it is also known as the ‘telegraph plant’ because the hinge motion of the leaves is similar to the movement of the semaphore telegraph, an 18th century invention which used wooden arms on tall poles to communicate messages optically (like smoke signals). Charles Darwin too was fascinated by this charming plant as it is found mentioned in his scientific study The Power of Movement in Plants. The plant has a bit of a false reputation however. The movement observed in the plant is generally assumed to be stimulated by sound when in fact there is only limited evidence to support this. In fact, most of the movement is caused by hinges on some of the leaves and that movement is largely stimulated by light.
Garden Variety Plants
Eucalyptus tree. In its native Australia, this is a favourite of koalas, but it has been planted around the world and my family actually have one in our garden (in Northern Ireland). It is not always welcome abroad: as a native of hot dry land, it is very efficient at drawing up available water in the soil, often depriving native plants of water. Despite being planted across the world, it is a good example of a tree which lives best in its native habitat because, while in Australia some species are good for some bee species, in the UK the pollinating impact of eucalyptus is limited and can compete with native species. It’s not all bad news for the Eucalyptus; the oil is used across the world for medicinal purposes as an antiseptic, or to help clear congestion and colds. The leaves are highly flammable and hundreds of thousands of hectares, and their koala inhabitants, have sadly been lost in the recent Australian mega bushfires.
Snakes-head fritillary. A member of the lily family, the snakes-head fritillary has quite a few colourful names including ‘chess flower’, ‘frog cup’, ‘chequered lily’, and ‘leper lily’ because the shape of the flower resembles the shape of warning bells once held by lepers. They are native to plains and meadows of Europe, from the South of England all the way to Russia. Not often found in the wild, this flower was a favourite feature in Elizabethan gardens dating as far back as 1572.
The common myrtle is a small-leaved, aromatic evergreen shrub native to the Mediterranean. It is cultivated in southern England and in the warmer regions of North America. Myrtle are a genus of a number of flowering trees and shrubs including the depicted species aromatic common myrtle. The ‘myrtle tree’ is also a familiar plant referred to in the Bible. In ancient Palestine it symbolised life and fertility and in the Greco-Roman tradition, the common myrtle was said to be sacred to Venus/Aphrodite and used as an emblem of love in decorations and wreaths.
Beautiful and Bizarre Natives
Milk thistle. Native to South West Europe, these have been historically enjoyed as part of people’s diets. It is a plant which has a reputation as medicinally beneficial but the evidence for this is limited. It’s a good example of a plant shrouded in its own folklore. It is used in holistic medicine and is believed to have some natural cholesterol-lowering benefits.
Sneezewort. Achillea ptarmica (or yarrow) is a plant with a brilliant story to its names. It was given its first scientific (Latin) name after the Greek hero Achilles. The legend goes that during the Trojan War the Greek soldiers made poultices of the achillea leaves to staunch the bleeding of battlefield wounds. The ptarmica part of its scientific name is derived from the Greek word for plants that cause sneezing, but this is likely to be part of English folklore too. It is native to Europe and is found across the UK.
Ghost orchid. Certainly not a plant you’ll stumble upon on your daily walk, Epipogium aphyllum is a particularly rare plant found in the UK. It is known for not needing sunlight to produce food, instead relying on several types of fungi. The name comes from the appearance of the plant, but also lends itself well to its elusive nature. It is found in shaded woodland in deep, moist leaf litter and spends most of its life underground as rhizomes (an underground horizontal stem with roots) only coming to the surface every ten years or so to flower. It was actually declared extinct in the UK in 2005, and whilst it has happily been rediscovered since, it remains very rare and on the verge of extinction.
This blog was written by Hannah Eves, Executive Assistant/Researcher at A Rocha UK for the ‘Nature and home’ Wild Christian email.
General plant identification website including app: