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Snowy Egret, Vol. 75, #1
Snowy Egret, Vol. 75, #1

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The Cabaret of Plants

The yew which trumps them all, perhaps the most celebrated and provocative tree in all Europe, is the Great Yew at Fortingall in Perthshire, located by the Victorian church in this tiny village. The faithful believe it has been growing here for at least 5,000 years. If so, it was flourishing before the making of Stonehenge and the digging of the Neolithic burial chamber at Maeshowe in the Orkneys..

Fortingall Yew

Plasticity of form is the most remarkable feature of baobabs; they are shape shifters. They can swell, shrink, curl, explode, creep about. They can begin their lives as Palladian columns, be blown down, set on fire, and then regenerate from the wreckage as a coil of snakes or a lava stream or a cave mouth. Human strangers who have witnessed their protean powers have been inspired to protean dreams.

The Cabaret of Plants

Forty Thousand Years of Plant Life and the Human Imagination
by Richard Mabey
University of North Texas Press, 2015

Arranged as a series of connected essays inspired by plants, this book makes a botanical survey of the world looking for human relationships rooted among the foliage and blossoms, such as the history of a plant’s name or the trade that sprouted from species like tobacco and cotton.

While much of this British nature writer's attention is focused on what's growing in cultivated fields and gardens of his homeland, many of the forty species profiled are found overseas in continental Europe, the Americas, Asia and Australia.

"Everywhere I have travelled plants have surprised me by their dogged loyalty to place, even to the point of defining the genius loci, and then by their capricious abandonment of home comforts to become vagrants, opportunists, libertines," Richard Mabey notes.

Similarly, Mabey is a thoroughly British naturalist whose writing career began with a chance acquaintance with the marine cactus known as samphire on the North Norfolk coast, which led to a book on foraging titled Food for Free, followed by a long career of peripatetic journalism and publishing.

Baobab Trees

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Leafy Oak Tree
Despite Britain’s belief in a special relationship with the tree, as the nation’s “heart of oak”, the oaks’ botanical heartland is Mexico, where there are 160 species, 109 of which grow nowhere else. 

It looks unprepossessing, a bunch of floppy green strings, a spine-free marine cactus with its succulent segments sporting barely visible scales in place of conventional leaves.