"There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion" Francis Bacon 1561-1626

Saturday, 5 July 2008

Leaf of the Day: Aristolochia Baby

After yesterdays funny and rascally squirrels I need to turn my attention to something that has been lying dormant in the fridge for a few days now, isolated in the bottom drawer and out of harms way. Something that definitely doesn't score so highly on the cute and cuddly scale. I am not going to write too much about this plant today as I may make some more studies, if not of this one, then of another variety. Suffice it to say the drawing is of an almost cute, baby monster which is destined to grow into something almost unspeakably fascinatingly, horrible or perhaps beautiful, it all depends on your personal definition of beauty.
When I first saw one of these at Leu, a variety in fact which has an even larger, floppier flower part, I thought a terrible incident of disemboweling had taken place, some bird of prey perhaps had impaled the intestines of something very big on the fence, leaving them trailing down the trellis half hidden in the leaves of a vine. But ..phew ...it was only an aristolochia.

You know how I like the odd and quirky things in life. I find huge fascination in the many strange and wonderful aspects of plant life, but while I am in awe of this creature, I am really struggling to like this or for that matter, several other members of the bizarre Aristolochia family. If they or one of their relations moved in next door you would be seriously worried.
This innocent baby I have drawn is a young Aristolochia grandiflora and will become one of these.....







The Aristolochia grandiflora - Pelican flower, Dutchman's pipe vine, birthwort or in an attempt to try and prettify it "calico flower" The tiny one I drew was just over 1 inch in length. The one immediately above, from the top of the "pipe" to the bottom of its twisty snaky tail, is 21 inches and not yet fully grown.

Opinion on the gardening sites is mostly favourable, some regard it as an excellent conversation piece for the garden. Personally I can think of ten million more pleasant things to talk about than a plant that looks like some gruesome botanical Frankenstein's monster, fashioned by nature to mimic intimate internal human organs. It conjures up unspeakable adjectives, 'flaccid', 'visceral', 'intestinal', and nouns like 'orifice' and 'entrails'. It feels strange too, the "pipe" parts are very rigid, reinforced by these raised veins and the patterned flower parts feel much softer, yes, like skin. The colouring is livid in parts and fleshy pinky, creamy white in others again with those raised dark red veins protruding ...and is that greeny tint just a hint of putrefaction? If this thing suddenly started to pulse you wouldn't be surprised. At least Mother Nature spared it from being either sticky or slimy .

There is no getting away from it, this plant is just fleshy and to call it a calico plant is, I think, somewhat euphemistic. Like the dreadful smelling Carrion Cactus (which I wrote about before here ) the "petal " pattern has more of a similarity to a nice piece of marbled liver or meat rather than a cheery piece of cotton dress fabric. This flower also has a strong unpleasant smell which attracts insects who are lured down these sinister looking tubes to the inner part of the perianth (a fused calyx and corolla) which is covered with hairs, acting as a fly-trap. Mercifully this plant does not ingest its prey as the hairs in fact wither, releasing the pollen covered flies to go about their pollination duty much to their great relief I would imagine.
The names, pipe vine and Dutchman's pipe, no doubt another attempt to ameliorate the instinctive feeling of revulsion to this plant's appearance, are of course an allusion to those quaint old-fashioned meerschaum pipes.

But it is with the "Birthwort" name, that this plant and I really part company and we are back to the terrifying Doctrine of Signatures.. more of this tomorrow and it's not for the pregnant or fainthearted.

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Aristolochia Baby


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