The Secret Life of Plants (2015.10.05 [Mon.])


  These days my home office and balcony look like a jungle, so lush you’d think I was selling mint. Writing in this environment makes me feel like a Humboldt or Bates, a Haeckel or Wallace, crouched scribbling in some tropical hut. The picture below speaks for itself—I can’t even reach my folios through all the foliage! What have I done? I guess I have been influenced by people around me, and getting older probably has something to do with it as well. That’s all well and good, but for me it’s more than just the inherent pleasantness of greenery, it’s born of a desire to add a flavor of biology, of natural history, to my surroundings.

  The same thing happened over a decade ago, when I fell hard for tropical fish. I wasn’t one for the typical entry-level species, but jumped right in to collecting exotica like lungfish and bichirs, inspired by Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire’s belief that such pedigrees hold the key to morphological change. 

  Among my lungfish, a Lepidosiren paradoxa from South America, grew to over a meter in length, and an African Protopterus annectens displayed lovely patterning of a sort I’d never seen anywhere else, but ultimately I couldn’t keep up with the demands of maintaining these creatures, and I had to give them up. For better or worse, the fish species that people in the trade refer to as ‘Hattifatteners’ are comparatively undemanding to keep but difficult to breed, but I always enjoyed watching them swimming about in their comical fashion. As for bichirs, they’ve become a popular model organism recently, but back then no one had even heard of them.

  Those same eccentricities guide my tastes in plants, but in this case, instead of living fossils, I’ve opted for plants that attract insect life. But by that I don’t mean plants that just any bugs eat, but plants that draw the kinds of insects I’m interested in. And so my planters are filled with carrots, and pricklyash and trifoliate orange to make a home for the swallowtails. Common bluebottle drop by to visit almost every day thanks to the giant camphor tree outside. Sadly, although there are Asian and yellow swallowtails in the neighborhood, they haven’t yet come by. But Kitano is also blessed with many butterflies, including the common map (Cyrestis thyodamas), Pallas' Sailer (Neptis sappho) and its congener N. pryeri, the European beak (Libythea celtis), and both Papilio helenus and P. memnon, and a great many other insects as well. I felt it would be a shame to let their initiative in creating such a pastoral scene go unanswered, and I so I began to plant. I’m going to have to start adding Aristolochia, skunkvine, gardenias, and various Solanaceae and Colocasia (which should give some indication of my taste in insects, to the cognoscenti at least). As you can see, my real motivation remains with the bugs, and true plant lovers will no doubt see heresy in my selections. But I have to admit, I’m already developing a taste for ancient plants, and have been thinking of having a try at Equisetum arvense or even Psilotum nudum. We’ll see…

  In fact, having begun to keep plants I am starting to recognize the fascination they hold. Take the Mediterranean succulent tree aeonium (Aeonium arboretum; see fig.), also called sanshimon in Japanese, with its strikingly somber coloration so unlike that of other plants. Unfortunately it sheds its leaves during estivation, but I’m looking forward to its regrowth this fall.

  The little white soldier, Drimiopsis maculata, a member of the lily family is another favorite, with its spotted leaves, but perhaps in search of sunlight, its stalk keeps growing and growing and I’m at a loss over what to do.

  So now that I’m getting into houseplants, I have to face the jungle issue. I suppose you could call it a variant of bonsai-mania. I suppose I’m showing my years, but when I talk with others of the same age group everyone, and recently even younger people, have started to keep cacti or do bonsai. And some of the new decorative plants are amazing, which is all the more reason to be interested for a morphologist such as myself.

  Years ago, the American author-illustrator Leo Lionni published a book of bizarre plants titled La botanica parallela. It’s a work of fantastic natural history, describing plants that “live in the gaps between space and time, and escape our perception,” and one whose absurdity I enjoy so much that I often peruse it before going to bed. Content aside, the artwork is a bit rough and disappointing. But with all the wonderful forms that real-world plants (succulents in particular) have evolved, it’s easy enough to be surprised by reality even before investigating this fantasy world. Actual plants exceed our imagination, and happily (worryingly?), there’s a shop specializing in just this sort of plant right here in Kobe, not far from the central post office.

  It goes without saying that plants are much cheaper and grow much faster than animals, meaning they can turn a room into a jungle seemingly overnight. But having one odd specimen just made me want to acquire more.  I found myself becoming overwhelmed when one failed to thrive or I didn’t know how to care for it, and emailed a botanist friend (and fellow insectophile) for guidance… A few days ago, I ended up buying a Nepenthes, a plant he specializes in, and peppered him with questions until he no longer wants to hear from me. For his part, he keeps a turtle at home.

  Last week, a bush cricket (Hexacentrus japonica) showed up on my potted hibiscus, which I felt marked the first visit by a ‘proper’ insect. But the next morning I found a bud that should have bloomed from sunrise had been badly chewed away. Bugs certainly know what tastes good. I suppose it’s now just a matter of time before the swallowtail caterpillars begin to infest my tangerine and Japanese pepper trees…