Fronds of the earth

Amid the flot­sam and jet­sam on our beaches lies a rich abun­dance of brown, green and red sea­weeds, many of which can be put to good culi­nary and cos­metic use, rec­om­mends nat­u­ral­ist John Wright

Country Life Every Week - - Contents - Il­lus­tra­tions by Fiona Os­bald­stone

Take an­other look at our na­tive sea­weeds, urges John Wright

Rather sur­pris­ingly, there is a (small) canon of po­etry about sea­weed. Some are firmly in the Moby Dick school of lit­er­a­ture and a few dwell tumes­cently on the un­suit­abil­ity of sea­weed as cloth­ing for sea nymphs. Most, how­ever, speak only of sea­weed’s most no­to­ri­ous char­ac­ter­is­tic: its smell. Sadly lack­ing is any ref­er­ence to the as­tound­ing beauty of sea­weeds; no one pad­dled lonely as a cloud.

Should you feel in­clined to rem­edy this dere­lic­tion of po­etic duty, this is what you need to do. Go to a rocky shore on a bright day in late spring when there has been al­most no wind all week and there is a low, spring (big) tide. Find a rock pool and put on your most fetch­ing neu­tral-colour, po­lar­is­ing sun­glasses.

the many browns, greens and reds of the sea­weeds are nat­u­rally ar­ranged for great­est artis­tic ef­fect and cur­rents and small waves

dra­mat­i­cally change the view ev­ery few sec­onds as the fronds slip over one an­other and the light changes. Flashes of iri­des­cent blue from the tiny clus­tered bub­bles of oxy­gen that col­lect on the sea­weed fronds some­times out­shine those som­bre colours. No gar­dener can match the per­fec­tion of beauty found in a rock pool.

That sea­weeds are beau­ti­ful is be­yond dis­pute, but what are they? Sea­weeds have proved trou­ble­some to bi­ol­o­gists, as it’s not easy to say where they be­long in the great scheme that is life. The great clas­si­fier, Lin­naeus, lumped them all with the plants in a sec­tion he called the

cryp­toga­mae. His clas­si­fi­ca­tion de­pended on re­pro­duc­tive or­gans (the sta­mens and pis­til of flow­ers), yet sea­weeds con­spic­u­ously lack flow­ers. Lin­naeus was fond of sex­ual ref­er­ences and cryp­toga­mae means ‘hid­den mar­riage’, be­cause he couldn’t see what was go­ing on.

Sea­weed is re­ally a name of con­ve­nience for what is, in truth, a group of un­re­lated or­gan­isms. ‘Sea­weeds’ refers to an eco­log­i­cal group. Within this in­for­mal group are brown, red and green sea­weeds, re­spec­tively the Phaeo­phyta, Rhodophyta and Chloro­phyta. The im­por­tant point here is that these three are as dis­tantly re­lated to each other as plants are from an­i­mals! The Chloro­phyta are clas­si­fied as plants, the Rhodophyta with things such as slime moulds and the Phaeo­phyta find them­selves on an ob­scure branch on the tree of life, un­mem­o­rably known as the SAR su­per­group.

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