Durham University Botanic Gardens in August

Late, as usual, with my August post! August in the Botanics is the time when fruits of many shapes, sizes and colours really come into their own, both in the glasshouses and in the garden as a whole.  The banana tree in the glasshouses has produced a substantial hand of bananas and the Monstera deliciosa, better known as a Swiss Cheese plant after its Emmental-like leaves is also fruiting.  I’d not thought about it before but, as its name suggests, the 25 cm long fruits are actually edible, though substantial patience is required; they take more than a year to ripen! I’d also not realised though I should have, from the flower, that Monstera is a member of the Arum family along with Cuckoo-pint (Arum maculatum) which grows abundantly in the wild locally. Like many of its relatives, including Cuckoo-pint, unripe Monstera fruits contain spiky structures made of calcium oxalate which irritate the mouth. In fact Cuckoo-pint fruits are dangerously toxic even when ripe as the crystals irritate the throat and cause serious breathing difficulties.

Should you be lucky enough to come across a Monstera fruit, you can tell when it is ripe as the hexagonal plates in which it is covered start to fall off, exposing delicious-tasting (oxalate-free), creamy white flesh beneath. To be honest, that is very unlikely to happen with the Swiss Cheese plant sitting in the corner of your living room; it’s a plant from tropical Central America and needs more heat and light to complete its growth cycle than most of us can provide. 

Of course most of the fruits to be found in the Botanic gardens at the moment are much smaller and less obvious but all share the same purpose of protecting the developing seed as it matures and, once that has happened, aiding seed dispersal.  Fruits, which are a characteristic of the flowering plants or Angiosperms, are often a reward for partner organisms such as insects, animals or birds which improve the efficiency of seed dispersal.  They vary enormously in form from a pod containing peas, to rose hips lined with irritant hairs or ribbed achenes with a thistle-down parachute attached.

Two other hints of autumn in the air are the fungal fruiting bodies starting to appear, particularly in the area of native woodland behind the ‘Fungate’ sculpture and the first deciduous leaves starting to change colour. Our dry summer has meant this happening earlier than usual this year.

It’s not all about autumn though – some flowers, both native and garden plants, are still going strong, including Toadflax (Linaria vulgaris) and Purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria) in the wildflower area I enjoyed so much last month

Several varieties of flax are flowering in the demonstration plots and Agapanthus, Dahlias and Caster-oil plants are still putting on a show in the annual border.

Lots to look forward to in September, I’m sure!

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