pierre laszlo


Botany, which I did study awhile in my youth, holds a continued interest. Plants are remarkable organisms. In writing about them, in these small vignettes I try to combine the scientific and the cultural, the bucolic and the utilitarian, and to convey some of my sense of wonder - in brief to try and emulate some of the eighteenth-century natural historians, with the information now available to us.

Hypericum calycinum (Hypericaceae)

There are about nearly 500 Hypericum species, distributed across every continent except Antarctica. Although the Mediterranean basin is a hot spot for Hypericum, Asian and American continents also account for significant biodiversity, out of which many species are endemic. 
Due to the therapeutic efficacy of its different species, as antimicrobials in particular, Hypericum is well known in herbal medicine. It has even been used against mild and moderate depression and proven to be superior to placebo in improving depression symptoms, comparable to standard antidepressant drugs. 
This is the plant whose shoots are gathered and burned to ward off evil spirits on the eve of St. John's Day, thus giving rise to the common name for the genus, as St. John's wort — the latter an Old English word meaning ‟herb, plant.‟ Another traditional ritual consists in hanging flowers of this genus above images, pictures or windows. 
The five-petaled, yellow flowers (5-8 cm in diameter) are spectacular — a sun in miniature. They display numerous, bushy stamens with reddish anthers— with the appearance of miniscule poppies. The net-veined leaves have a distinctive response to sunshine, rich green in full light but a pale, yellowish green in the shade. 
Flowers, with their petals to us uniformly yellow, actually bear a UV pattern, which insects can see. Two pigments types, flavonoids and dearomatized isoprenylated phloroglucinols (DIPs), make up that pattern. Flavonoids are frequent floral UV pigments, but not the DIPs. The latter are present in high concentration in the anthers and ovarian wall of the flower, with a defensive purpose: deterrence and toxicity to insects. saint John’s wort was thus the first plant to have been reported having floral UV pigments fulfilling both an attractive visual (pollination) and a defensive (toxicity to herbivores) function.

Triticum dicoccum/dicoccoides (Cyperaceae)

Triticum dicoccum/dicoccoides (Cyperaceae) : plant domestication

Triticum, from the family of cereals, is arguably the oldest wheat species to have been domesticated by mankind. The main elements in the story of plant domestication are its origination in the Fertile Crescent, i.e., in the Middle East; a multiplicity of plants having become domesticated at about the same time; and the more or less contemporary domestication of animals.
A good illustration of those linked histories, at the very beginnings of the agricultural revolution, is the story from Cyprus, as reconstructed by a team of French archeologists, led by Jean Guilaine. Established villagers lived on Cyprus between 11,100 and 10,600 years ago, as dated by radiocarbon. The island of Cyprus was populated from the surrounding mainlands, due presumably to a combination of — not a Flood, as in the Biblical story of Noah’s Ark — but demographic pressure and increased economic exchanges. These first farmers to have inhabited the island brought with them goats, cattle, sheep and pigs — in addition to domesticated cereals and barley (Hordeum spontaneum/distichon)
Not to mention tamed cats, as well, Felis sylvestris lybica! One cat was buried with the remains of a man in a tomb. It was aged about eight months at death. Its large size is similar to that of present-day wild cats in the Near East. Thus, cats were already tamed if not domesticated eight millennia before the Christian Era. Until this find, cats were believed to have become domesticated in Egypt only some millennia later. Farmers having colonized Cyprus also brought with them domesticated dogs from the mainland.