Going down to the woods today…

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River Adour, at Tostat, April 2106

Dave the Dog and I did our usual today, and walked down our favourite walk from the back of the house, across a plank bridge, across two fields, past the playing field, and along the river path.  The River Adour rises in the Pyrenees, wanders down to Tarbes, Tostat and beyond and then does an almost U-turn to exit stage left at Bayonne into the Atlantic Ocean.  It is a wonderful river, more than a tad polluted by farm run-offs of nitrates and whatnot, but it is majestic and yet human-scale near us.  Here, you can see that the foresters have been at work.  There have been times when this pruning and coppicing has not happened, and the river has looked ignored.  But this year, it is being restored to glory, with the trees trimmed back to 3 main stems, which will allow more light in, and create more views for the strollers, like me.  Good job.

But, this year, one yearly visitor has been a bit tardy and also not at top notch.  Purple toothwort or Lathraea clandestina has been slow off the mark, and doesn’t seem as splendid as last year somehow.  But it still is a wondrous thing.

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Looking a bit uncertain this year, Purple Toothwort or Lathraea clandestine, Tostat, April 2016

If you compare this photograph with how it looked last year, albeit in a different tree, and in sunshine, you’ll see what I mean.

Purple tooth wort 1 Mar 15
Purple toothwort, Lathraea clandestine, Tostat, March 1st 2105

It isn’t called clandestine for nothing.  It certainly does know how to hide itself, usually in the cleft of a tree trunk, though it can also be seen in sprinkles on the ground.  Strangely, it doesn’t seem to come back to the same tree every year, but chooses a new destination.  Apparently, though now to be found in the UK, it was first identified in the wild in Cambridgeshire at Coe Fen in 1908, but has been cultivated at Kew Gardens since 1888.

The plant relies on bumblebees for pollination of its bisexual flowers which produce large amounts of nectar, making it a springtime treat for bees.  Nineteenth century botanists were fascinated by it, wondering whether it was in fact carnivorous or even that the leaves might act as respiratory pockets for breathing.  You can see the yellowish, scale leaves just beside the flowers in the photograph below.

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Close up of the flower, Lathraea clandestine, Tostat, April 2016

It doesn’t appear to harm the trees that it chooses as hosts,  and near us, it seems to stick to the same patch of damp, shady woodland even if it hops between the trees.   A springtime oddity.

No, Purple tooth wort isn’t auditioning for George Lucas…

Lathraea clandestina (Purple tooth wort) Mar 15
Lathraea clandestina (Purple tooth wort) Mar 15

This will date me, but this plant could have been invented by George Lucas as barfood in that sleazy intergalactic bar that Han Solo frequented.

But it is a living thing and such a bizarre plant.  You see it in woodlands for a few weeks at this time of the year, and it’s name, Lathraea clandestina, kind of says how it likes to grow- secretly, tucked away in a crevice of a tree or amongst the roots, and it will often look as if it is a flower belonging to some other plant, so you might not realise how disguised it likes to be. And the colour is spectacular. As if someone had upended a pot of vibrant, purple crocuses.

I’m not sure if it flowers every year, but I do know where I first saw it, in the woodland near the River Adour. And that year, funnily enough as if the universe tries to help you when you need an answer, Gardens Illustrated published a short piece by Roy Lancaster about it, and there it was, identified with no effort on my part.

Lathraea clandestina close-up Mar 15
Lathraea clandestina close-up Mar 15

You can see why it is called ‘tooth wort’.  The flowers are teeth-shaped, and only colour up with this deep purple and elongate themselves as they mature. Here you can see the greyer toning of the buds in a more junior clump that I spotted this morning.

Lathraea clandestina, Mar 15. A more junior clump.
Lathraea clandestina, Mar 15. A more junior clump.

It is a root parasite which, apparently, causes no harm to the parent tree or roots, and is becoming more popular as a cultivated plant, according to Kew Gardens.  And you can buy it from Avon Bulbs, though be prepared for a bit of effort to get it established, and have some patience.

For me, I think I would rather come across it growing mysteriously than actually try and cultivate it.  It seems something intrinsically of, and for, the wild, and all the better for being where it wants to be.  But, for the colour alone, and only for a while, it is very desirable. I like to think of Han Solo biting down on a Purple Tooth Wort canape.