Sunday, September 20, 2009

Naked Ladies



Yes, that is a cheap, attention-seeking headline; botanically, 'naked ladies' is nothing more than a slightly salacious name for autumn crocus aka meadow saffron aka Colchicum autumnale. This plant's ‘nakedness’ stems from its lack of leaves, which aren’t produced until spring – the beautiful lilac flowers, very attractive to bees, appear without any accompanying foliage in grassy places in early autumn. This is a rare wild plant and most specimens that turn up – like these beside a road in Weardale – are probably garden escapes. In the wild the plant was ruthlessly eliminated because it’s extremely poisonous to grazing livestock, thanks to the presence of toxic colchicine in all parts of the plant. Like many plant poisons colchicine has been used medicinally, in very low doses, to treat gout. It’s also used by crop breeders to double the number of chromosomes in plants, because the drug allows cell nuclei to divide without the cell they are in dividing, so doubling the number of chromosomes in the cell - a phenomenon known as tetraploidy. More chromosomes per cell tend to produce larger cells and larger cells lead to larger plants and better crops. All sorts of unnaturally large plants, ranging from some strawberry varieties strawberries to hyacinths, have been bred using this long-standing form of genetic manipulation, which has been in use for over a century. Crossing a tetraploid with a plant with a normal complement of chromosomes produces plants called triploids, with three sets of chromosomes per cell, which are seed- sterile – a common breeding technique for producing seedless fruit.

8 comments:

  1. Thanks again, saw a Speckled Wood in North Wales yesterday. My first ever, ID helped by your search engine thanks.

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  2. Glad to know it was useful, Adrian one day there will be netbook-based field guides that will make Id-ing on the move much easier.

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  3. Another fascinating piece Phil. I didn't know the autumn crocus was poisonous, or a 'wild plant'. I thought it was something just sold at garden centres, etc.

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  4. Like, Keith I didn't know that autumn crocus was poisonous although I had an idea it had been a wild plant (once). I have always like them - a friend has lots in her garden at this time of year.

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  5. Here, in SW Eire I have seen them in the wild, although escapees most likely.

    Thanks for the additional cell/chromosomes information.
    lovely blog, you have here.

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  6. Hi Keith, I think colchicine has featured as a poison in quite a lot of murder mysteries over the years. A lot of the varieties sold in garden centres these days are double-flowered, but I rather like the simplicity of the 'wild' form..

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  7. Hi Emma, I have a few in the garden and finding them in flower at this time of year always comes as a bit of a surprise. Their spring foliage is quite striking, but they tend to get overlooked with everything else that's burgeoning at that time of the year..

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  8. Thanks for the kind comment Yoke. I imagine lush grassland and the climate in south-west Eire would suit it very well....

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