Pur­ple haze of the sax­ifrage

The Courier & Advertiser (Dundee Edition) - - NEWS - Choice Words Jim Crum­ley

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

Pic­ture: Getty Images.

Pink sax­ifrage.

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