Nature Notes

Shiners.

It is cold down at the badger sett; tooIMG_1177 cold, perhaps, for the cubs to come out. I can hear them bumping about in the earth beneath me. The nettles on the earthworks are freckled with the last of the cherry blossom and have flushed with growth brought on by recent rain. Soon, they’ll obscure the sett and its inhabitants completely. I slide quietly down my oak tree, above the sett in the hollow and its nettles, and get distracted by the flowers. On this damp and shaded soil are some intriguing little marvels.

Moschatel is raised on slender stalks no higher than my ankle. From a standing position, the blooms are bubbles, but down here, each of four flowers are mathematically arranged to form the cube of a ‘townhall clock’ (its other name) with a fifth facing skywards. Close up, they have a musky scent.

Curling out of the earth is the strange and ghostly toothwort. Hardly a flower at all, it is an entirely parasitic (here, on the roots of hazel and beech) member of the broomrape family and without need of leaves or chlorophyll. Like bleached orchids under the heavy canopy of laurel, the flowers sit in a tight, vertical row like stained teeth in an animal jawbone.

And then the whiff of something unpleasant above the honeyed bluebells leads my eye to a commoner but much over-looked plant. The arum lily is flowering, and stinking. It too is a curious affair; a long purple or yellow spadix, shaped like a rounder’s bat, surrounded by the cowl of a tall, pale green hood.

IMG_1146
This hoodie of the plant world was not overlooked historically and has a litany of ribald names to complement its phallic appearance (should you have a mind) from Lords and Ladies (as in the Lord’s and the Lady’s) to Willy Lily or the seemingly innocent ‘Cuckoo Pint’.

It produces both a metabolic heat and a smell of carrion to attract tiny flies and midges into the bottom of the cowl. Downwards-pointing hairs trap the flies so they batter about in the well, pollinating the male and female flowers. After a few days, the hairs wither and the flies escape, their job done.

Late in summer, when the coolly sculptural hood has withered, the fertilized female flowers become equally curious clusters of scarlet, orange and green poisonous berries on a tall thick stalk, like New York traffic lights. Then, they are hardly recognisable as the same plant and none of their bawdy springtime names seem either remotely apparent or appropriate.

Some movement brings my attention back to the darkening sett, just in time to see a badger’s grey bottom disappear into the ground. Time to go. I pick my way out of the wood, the failing light playing tricks with my eyes and I am startled: there are faintly glowing, flame-shaped will o’ the wisps either side of the badger track I came in on. That whiff again: each arum lily is emitting a faint phosphorescence to attract moths and other fly-by-nights. For a while, reflected and shielded by the cowl, like a hand around a candle, the ‘shiners’ light my way home.

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