Purple haze of the saxifrage
Every April, I make the same promise to myself: I must become more fluent in the poetry of mountain flowers. I don’t mean flower poetry, but rather the accidental poetry that characterises the language of the names of mountain flowers.
This annual rekindling of good intentions is mostly occasioned by my first encounter with the mountains’ idea of spring, with purple saxifrage. “Saxifraga oppositifolia,” purrs the botanist, mysteriously scorning the bunched fists of startling purple flowers in favour of the plant’s prosaic character trait of leaves in opposite pairs, hence oppositifolia.
Such dimwit tendencies make me wonder about scientists and the way some of them use their brains, yet no one with an ear for rhythm and cadence can deny the buoyant surge of saxifraga oppositifolia when you roll it around your tongue.
The Gaelic, however, is something else: clach-bhriseach purpaidh – “purple stone-breaker”. What genius came up with that one?
What inspired mountain wanderer first examined an eye-level cluster of purple saxifrage under a dripping-wet rock overhang one far-off spring day, noticed that it was rooted in the very rock itself, and reached for the image of a stone-breaker, as if the plant had prised the rock apart?
Whoever it was, a poet’s sensibilities were surely at work.
Anyone who believes that you cannot get blood out of a stone has never seen the clach-bhriseach purpaidh flex its tiny muscles on a slab of three-billion- year-old Lewissian gneiss. And who said faith can’t move mountains?
The poetry of saxifrages is even better served in the case of the starry saxifrage. In truth, it is no starrier than any of our other native saxifrages, but the sound of its Latin classification, saxifrage stellaris, glitters like the nebula of Orion. And the Gael’s clachbhriseach reultach, the starry stonebreaker, is surely worthy of a constellation all of its own.
The starry saxifrage and I go back a long way. I first met one face-to-face high on Beinn-a-Bheitir above Ballachulish, and so long ago that it cost me a shilling. I had pulled a hanky from my pocket and the coin tumbled out with it, bounced once and disappeared into a crack a few inches wide. I fancied I could still see it glinting palely there, and crouched down and peered into the gap. But all was black beneath, except for the upturned star of a single flower.
Not long before this encounter, I had acquired the invaluable knowledge of inverting my binoculars to turn them into a microscope. This was its first practical application, and I discovered that the starry stone-breaker is much more than a five-pointed white star. Firstly, there are twice as many tiny red stamens as there are petals, and secondly, there are two vivid yellow spots on every petal. I now know that this discovery has the kind of impact on the botanical community that pointing out the red breast of robins has on ornithology, but then and there I was on my knees in wonderland.
And what really moved me was the tiny daring of the thing. The crack opened into a dark chamber two or three feet deep and about as wide. There was space there for a whole Milky Way of starry saxifrages, but apparently sustenance enough for only one. That single flower aglow in that chamber of gloom is surely the most primitive and poetic thing I have ever seen.
If none of that impresses you, perhaps I can interest you in the case of the mountain avens. The late glacial period of our last ice age, about 10,00015,000 years ago, is known among people who worry about such things as the dryas period. Dryas may not be the most lyrical sounding of names, and Dryas Octopetala – the mountain avens – sounds more rhythmic than lyrical, but there is a kind of poetic rightness about its unique significance. Octopetala is fairly straightforward – eight petals – but why dryas? I’m glad you asked.
Such was the profusion of mountain avens fossils datable from the late glacial period that the people who make decisions about how to christen swathes of time lasting 5,000 years drew their inspiration from one of the loveliest of alpine flowers.
Seton Gordon’s books offer intriguing glimpses into that incheshigh world of alpines. Take the dwarf cornel, a favourite of many a Cairngorms walker: “…at first glance, four white or pale yellow petals tinged with purple appear to grow on each flower stalk, but a closer inspection reveals that these ‘petals’ are in reality ‘bracts’ and their function is to attract by their conspicuous appearance the attention of the insects that fertilise the plant.
“The bracts surround a large number of minute purple flowers with yellow stamens. The fruit is a red berry. It was said by the Highlanders to create appetite, and the plant was called by them lus a’ chraois – the herb of gluttony…”
Poetic or what?
“There was space there for a whole Milky Way of sorry saxifrages