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Plant Descriptions

Most people probably take up their fascination with wild flowers by identifing them from pictures and photographs and there is nothing wrong with this - 'one picture says a 1000 words. But soon you may wish to learn more about particular plants and plants in general and this is where the descriptions given in most reference books come in useful.

The following is a description from Meikle, the recognised 'Bible' of Cyprus flora:

  • 'An erect perennial with a slender, bulbilliferous underground stem, sometimes 25 cm long arising from a dark, glossy brown, pyriform tuber 2-3 cm long, 1-1.5 cm wide; leaves densely clustered at apex of stem, 3-foliate, with widely obcordate leaflets 1-2 cm long and 1.2-3.5 cm wide, lamina glabrous or subglabrous above, pilose or glabrous below, apex with a wide sinus and rounded lobes, the lobes of the lateral leaflets frequently somewhat unequal; petiole slender 5-15 cm or more in length ...'

And so the description goes on, ending after 30 lines or so with:

  • '… testa bright brown, conspiciously rugose with transverse wrinkles, integument pouch-shaped, almost enclosing the seed; endosperm copious.'

Meikle is a prodigious two volume work with no photographs nor graphics other than a few line drawings and though written in English it draws heavily on botanical Latin.

It tells us everything we need to know about almost every wild plant growing in Cyprus but it's much too technical for most of us, especially beginners.

The following is a description of the same plant taken from Collins Mediterranean Wild Flowers by Marjorie Blamey and Christopher Grey-Wilson:

  • Slightly hairy, tufted, low to short, bulbous perennial, without an aerial stem, often carpeting. Leaves long-stalked at ground level; leaflets broadly heart-shaped; flowers large, yellow, funnel-shaped, the petals 20-25 mm long, borne in broad umbels. Capsule rarely formed'

This is their complete description of the same plant, and there is a colour painting of it.

Both authors are describing Oxalis pes-caprae (Bermuda Buttercup or Cape Sorrell), a flower with which most of us are very familiar for it's springtime beauty and it's nuisance value as a garden weed.

The Bermuda Buttercup is easily identifiable from a picture and in this case the picture is probably all we need, unless we wish to learn more about the plant. But identification of other plants can leave some doubt if all we have are pictures of them. Eventually we will need some form of description.

The authors of most elementary reference books take pains to point out that they have avoided technical terms where possible but for instances where this not possible they usually provide a glossary. Thus our reading of a description may often be interrupted by referring to the glossary.

Therefore it helps to know something about the construction of typical plants. Most authors start at the bottom - the roots - and work up, to the flower, so this is what we'll do here.

Basically there are the roots, stem, leaves and flower

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The roots hold the plant in the ground and gather water and essential nutrients to make the plant grow. There are many types of root systems but the most common are: tap roots, fibrous roots, tuberous roots, bulbs and corms (which are in fact leaves but with small fibrous roots beneath)

We are discouraged from digging up wild plants but I maintain that if they are growing on a building site or potential building site this is okay because they are going to get covered in concrete anyway. However there are many examples of root systems to be found while harvesting or weeding a typical garden.

Common tap roots are to found on carrots, parsnips and so on.

Fibrous root systems on peas, beans, and all those weeds that are easily pulled up.

Examples of tuberous roots are potatoes and dahlias.

Bulbs can be found under onions, daffodils, crocuses etc. The layers of an onion are really leaves - the true roots are underneath the bulbs - but for our purposes and because the bulbs are underground we'll call them roots.

There are many variations of root systems, as we know to our cost if we allow mint to invade a patch of garden or allow the daughter plants of strawberry plants to grow unchecked.

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Stems form the first part of the aerial system of plants. The most striking example of a stem is in a typical tree where it is a strong structure that supports everything else. But even very low and mat-forming plants have stems - it's just that they're so short we tend to ignore them.

Other forms of stem are featured in climbing plants such as Runner Beans and Morning Glory. Here the stems are not robust but instead haul the plant upwards by twining around any available support. Some stems twine clockwise, others anticlockwise and others are just not fussy. Morning Glory grows very quickly, as you will know if you try to keep it in check, and if you have time to watch a young shoot you may see it grope it's way to some form of support then suddenly latch onto it.

A variation of climbing stems can be seen in those plants which produce tendrils that attach themselves to any available support and in extreme cases such as ivy the tendrils throw off roots that more firmly attach the plant to walls.

Stems can also be unbranched, sparcely branched or many-branched - usually giving us a bush; they can be round, furrowed, square or three-cornered - like Neapolitan Garlic. The stems can be hairy, with forward or backward pointing hairs; they can be bristly or glandular, that is sticky having hairs with blobs of 'glue' at their ends.

All of these characteristics help enormously in the identification of a plant.

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Leaves come in all shapes and sizes but a helpful distinguishing feature is that most plants either have opposite leaves, that is they grow off the stem in pairs, or alternate leaves, that is they grow off the the stem individually, usually spiralling round it.

Leaf type is important. Simple, or entire, more-or-less oval leaves are how we tend to think of leaves, for example apple and citrus plant leaves. But if you study even simple leaves in more detail you will find a vast variation: round, as in Pellitory of the Wall, heart-shaped, as in Cyclamen, spatula-shaped, as in Daisy, arrow-shaped, as in Goosefoots, grass-like, as in many of the bulbous plants, and so on. The famous fig leaves, as often worn by statues, and the leaves of Morning Glory have more complex shapes.

The edges of leaves also show great variation. They can be smooth, wavy, inwardly curved, serrated, toothed, prickly in two or three dimensions, or various combinations of all these.

And that's just simple leaves. Compound leaves are those that have leaflets or seeming leaflets. The Bermuda Buttercup and clovers have three leaflets a form which is known as trifolate. Cannabis has the well-known palmate leaf. Most Umbellifers, such as Wild Carrot, Hedge Parsley have pinnate leaf forms where leaflets arise from the lamina or spine of the leaf and these leaflets in turn are often pinnately divided again to give what is called a bi-pinnate leaf. There are even tri-pinnate leaf forms.

Other characteristics of leaves include their hairiness, or indumentum, their spikiness (as in thistles), their venation (that is the pattern of the veins on the upper and lower surfaces of the leaf blades), the shape of the leaf tips and base and whether it has a stalk or not.

Thus an awful lot can be learned about the identification of a plant by merely studying it's leaves.

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The flower in all it's beauty is what attracts us. The flower is not trying to attract we humans - we are quite likely to cut it off above it's feet then stick it in vase of water to die a slow, agonising and pointless death. No, the flower is trying to attract insects to help it to procreate.

Initially it appears as what we commonly call a bud which is usually, but not always, a collection of protective sepals (the calyx) enclosing the petals (or corolla). Within the petals are the sexual organs of the plant. The male organs are the erect stamens surmounted by by the pollen-bearing anthers. The female organs are usually surrounded by the male organs and are called carpels. Each carpel contains an ovule (an, initially, unfertilised egg, if you like), a style (like a fallopian tube) surmounted by the receptive stigma.

Such a typical plant is called hermaphrodite, meaning that it possesses both male and female organs in the same flower. But some flowers are unisexual and known as staminate because they have only male stamens and anthers while their counterparts are known as pistillate because they have only female carpels. Sometimes separate male and female flowers grow on the same plant; sometimes the male and female flowers grow on entirely separate plants of the same species. These are respectively known as monoecious and dioecious flowers - but perhaps we are getting too technical now.

The foregoing was a brief description of a typical flower as for instance depicted by a child's drawing - a round bit in the middle surrounded by wide spokes which represent the petals. Such a simple flower is the Buttercup or Campion with five petals (it is amazing how many flowers have five petals (5-merous as we say)). Other simple flowers are Stocks and Candytufts with four petals. There are also flowers with six or more petals and a few with only three petals. Bell flowers such as Convolvulus seemingly have only one petal but in these species the petals have fused together to form the bell.

But not all flowers are what they seem. It's a popular misconception, and one which I succumbed to in my early days, that flowers such as daisies, chrysanthemums, thistles … are in fact just the same as the simple flowers but a bit more complicated-looking. In reality such flowers are known as composites because they consist of many flowers, or florets compounded into one head. Even then there can be two types of floret - ray florets, as in the white 'petals' of the Ox-eye Daisy and tube florets which comprise the yellow 'eye' of the Daisy. Closer inspection will reveal that each white 'petal' and each yellow part are in fact separate little flowers.

We may also initially be fooled by Umbellifers, or flowers from the Carrot family. What at first glance appears to be fluffy white or yellow flower is in fact a collection of tiny florets arranged at the end of rays like the spokes of an umbrella.

All the florets, with perhaps the exception of ray florets, are more or less regular in their form - they're just small versions of the simpler flowers.

But it gets more complicated because some flowers are not regular. In the Pea family, which is huge, the flowers have four petals but of three different shapes. The most showy is the standard which rises, as the name suggests, above the rest of the flower. Below and opposite is the keel, a boat-shaped petal, while at each side are the wings. All very nautical. Another large family of flowers is the Labiate family which have only two petals, or lips (hence labiate).

The various complexities of the different types of flower would appear to have evolved to attract insects. Many flowers secrete nectar, which insects love, and when they stick their heads into the flower the pollen from the male organs, the anthers, sticks to the insect. When the insect searches for nectar in the next flower it may be that the female organs, the stigmas, of that flower are receptive and so the pollen from the first flower is deposited on the stigma then travels down the style to fertilise the ovary. Bingo! Life begins!

The Labiates (this is the Figwort, Schrophulariaceae, family) are more fussy as to which insect is allowed in. As children we've all squeezed the sides of a Snapdragon and watched it's jaws open. This is what insects do when they land on the lower lip of the flower. Small Labiates such as mints or sages attract only small insects - a Bumble Bee would fall off the lip - while larger Labiates such as Snapdragons and Foxgloves attract bigger insects because smaller insects don't have the strength or weight to open the door, so to speak.

Orchids are the highest form of plant life and they are very particular. There is a theory that they have evolved to such an extent that their lower lips look to certain male insects like their female counterpart and thus it is possible for a dim-witted or visually defective rampant male insect to attempt to mate with the orchid. In doing so it gets covered in pollen so when it continues it's orgy with another orchid the second orchid may be fertilised. The insect may or may not procreate it's species depending whether or not it finds a true mate but the orchid procreates anyway.

Thus the picking of wild flowers may be viewed as abortion.

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Fruits and Seeds:

Once the flower has been fertilised it has little or no use for the male organs, the stamens, so these shrivel up. Similarly the petals are of no further use in attracting insects so these usually wither and die off. The plant now concentrates on the female organs, the ovary and the carpels.

Assuming that nothing untoward happens the ovary develops into the fruit and begins to build up protection systems and dispersal systems for the embryo seeds which develop from the ovules.

The following is a very general description. Fruits and seeds vary considerably and any botanists or would-be botanists will immediately be able to find fault.

Protection systems take many forms - pea pods, nuts, orange peel, to name but a few and often these are the layers we peel or break off to satisy our hunger on the tasty insides.

Fruits can be classified into two broad groups - succulent fruits and dry fruits.

Succulent fruits can be further classified as:

  • Drupes: (Plum, Cherry, …) (a subdivision of which are those plants forming drupels (Blackberry, Raspberry, …))
  • Berrys (Gooseberry, Grape, …)
  • Pomes (Apple, Pear, …).

Dry fruits can be further classified as:

  • Nuts (Oak, Hazel, …)
  • Cypsela (ie having a pappus) (Dandelion, Thistle, …)
  • Samara (ie having wings) (Ash, Sycamore, …).

However, our usual conception of a fruit is as in the Apricot where there is an outer skin, a fleshy part (which we eat) and a stone. The seed is contained inside the stone and usually consists of protective coat called the testa, a food supply for use during germination, and the embryo.

Dispersal of seeds can be provided by various means.

Succulent fruits such as Apricots are eaten by animals. In Cyprus, and the UK, we don't have many animals that eat such large fruits, but say, a Blackberry is a collection of little fruits similar in form to an Apricot - the little round parts of a Blackberry are called drupels whereas an Apricot is called a drupe. What happens here is that the animal, usually a bird, eats the fruit but the stone inside, which protects the seed, passes through the animal unharmed and is deposited far away from the parent plant.

In the case of nuts such as Oak and Hazel the animal takes away the fruit for later consumption. In doing so the animal drops a few nuts on the way home, or forgets where it has hidden them and thus the seed may eventually germinate. Other seeds are dispersed by attachment. They have hooks or bristles which attach themselves to the fur of animals then later are brushed off. We are all familar with Sticky Willy and Burdock.

Wind provides another form of dispersal if the plant has equipped itself for this method. Some fruits such as Ash and Sycamore have developed wings, nature's helicopters. Some fruits such as dandelions have a fluffy pappus, nature's parachutes, and simply wait for a strong puff of wind to carry them away. Poppies wave in the breeze and shake the seeds from pepper pot heads. The fruits and seeds of Orchids are so light that a puff of wind will disperse them over relatively long distances.

Other seeds are launched by the plant equivalent of pyrotechnics - the pods of say, Oleanders and Brooms suddenly split and twist throwing seeds relatively far and wide.

So that was a very brief summary of fruits and seeds.

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