Autumn Ladies Tresses

There is an apparent paucity in French of common names. Quite often the name of a plant or animal as given in popular books is merely a form of the scientific Latin. Tipule for the daddy long legs, is no more than the scientific Latin Tipula. Similarly, the plant I describe this month is called in the popular books Spiranthe d'automne. Its flower spike has, in form, a good resemblance to a plait of hair braided through with a white ribbon, and from that appearance, is so much more romantically named in English. The earliest record is in 1548 when England was rural. The Latin name Spiranthes was invented to indicate a spire of flowers.

Our poor calcareous pasture carries several hundred spikes. At this time of year one sees the spikes rising to about 15 cms. Each arises from the corm of the previous season. To one side of the stem, and separate from it, is set a small rosette of young leaves. This is so close set to the ground that even if the sheep eat the flowers, the leaves will escape to survive through the winter and create enough nutriment for the corm to rest through the next summer. If you bend down to smell the flowers, you will discover there a powerful smell of vanilla. This no doubt attracts the small bees which pollinate it. The plant is an orchid, and as with most orchids the flowers are in fact upside down. This is achieved by each individual small flower stalk bending over to the other side of the main stem. It is in this that I have seen a odd circumstance which has surprised me and for which I have no explanation. My photo shows that in one case the flower is bent to the right and in the other it is bent to the left. One might say the flowers run clockwise up the stem in one case and in the other anti-clockwise. A count of the flowers in the pasture shows that the split is about 50/50.

The flowers in early seem to have no lean one way or the other. They are like small shoots of asparagus. How the spiral to left or the right begins is a mystery, but I suspect it to be a chance effect of the environment rather than a genetical trait. I find no reference to it in my books.

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