Sunday, September 23, 2012

Beware the evil purple plant

Autumn officially arrived – in calendar terms – on September 22nd. In real life, that is country terms, it arrives when a basic rule of physics switches. We are all taught at some point in our school life that hot air rises and cold air falls, or vice versa. The turning point of the year is when one dominates the other.

So it was up till about the last weekend of August that we were conscious of hot air rising into the attic rooms, that we had to open the sky lights to let it rise higher, preferably creating a draught on the way. The ceiling fans were switched on way before bed-time. Then, suddenly, it was cold air coming down the stairs and the door to the attic had to be kept closed. Now fan heaters are briefly put on first thing in the morning in the downstairs rooms to compensate for the overnight cold.

beware! the evil crocus lurks....
The most attractive sign of the arrival of autumn is the sudden appearance of the autumn crocus. Given the appalling – and continuing - summer drought this year, I was not expecting it. I assumed the bulbs had dried out. But no, August 31st I got up, looked out of the kitchen window and there was the first, single, autumn crocus. It is a pretty, pale lilac leafless flower. In the spring, only its leaves come above ground, luxuriant, large and very, very green. Also, very, very poisonous.

In fact colchicum autumnale is a dangerous plant, full of unstable alkaloids that will poison humans or cattle if ingested in large quantities. In times of starvation cattle have been known to eat it with sometimes fatal results. People in hard times have tried to release the sugars from the bulbs. My mother tried this in the Forties but fortunately had the sense to boil only tulip bulbs which are slightly less poisonous. I believe she gave up sugar.

It seems to me odd that a plant should rely on folk memory, 'granny died from eating too much crocus leaf salad', for its survival. Less odd that humans should have this folk memory. This is the kind of knowledge that is discounted in times of near starvation, see about cows above. Does the crocus know that knowledge passes from human to human just as from sparrow to sparrow in the great milk bottle top story? Is a crocus conscious? Is it evil? We are getting dangerously near non-Darwinian theories of existence here.

Arthropods, humans easily concede, do have a consciousness but that is probably only because they move – bite, sting or generally make a nuisance of themselves. Many are so small as to be nearly invisible to the sleepy human eye. Or so it would seem.

Only one week away, in the Great Smoke, and, as soon as I get back, I am attacked. I don't know specifically what I did wrong, whether it was to pick flowers, tomatoes, or to get into bed without shaking the sheet first, but my left hand is covered in tiny, hard, red bites that itch like fury.

If that is what one (or several) small insects can inflict on a human being – thank heavens, or whoever, or whatever, that colchicum autumnale and its ilk, are firmly grounded.

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