Dear Readers, this inoffensive little plant is my first ever member of the Orobanchaceae or Broomrape family, which includes a wide range of total and partial parasites. Bartsias are partial parasites – they can photosynthesise but they extract nutrients from the roots of other plants, grasses in the case of this species. Normally, these plants grow in nutrient-poor soil (hence the need to steal the resources they need from their hosts). These, however, were growing on a bridle path in Dorset, where you’d have thought that horse manure raining down would have provided everything that any plant could want (though judging by how overgrown the path was it would take a very intrepid rider to tiptoe through.
Red bartsia is native to Europe and Asia, but has become a bit of a pest in North America. The Latin word ‘Odontites‘ means ‘tooth-related’, and the plant has been used medicinally for toothache since the time of Pliny the Elder. ‘Vernus‘ means ‘of the spring’, but this is something of a misnomer as the plant flowers in summer and autumn. ‘Bartsia’ comes from the botanist Johann Bartsch, who worked with Linnaeus and was sent to Surinam by his mentor when he was only 29. Sadly, Bartsch caught a tropical disease on arrival and promptly died, whereupon Linnaeus invented the word ‘Bartsia’ and set about attaching it to various plants. You might have thought that he’d pick something a bit more flamboyant to honour his student, but there you go.
In one of those interrelationships between plants and animals, red bartsia has its very own solitary bee species, the red bartsia bee (Melitta tricintca). Red bartsia often grows on chalky soils, and chalk grassland is becoming rarer in the UK, taking its associated species with it as it disappears. The bee only takes pollen from the red bartsia, though it might occasionally take nectar from other flowers. The males hang around the plant looking for visiting females.
This is also the main foodplant of the Barred Rivulet moth (Perizoma bifaciata). Have a look at the camouflage below. No wonder moths so often go unnoticed.
And finally a poem, by Emily Dickinson no less. The poet wanders about the winter village, asking who lies in the various ‘beds’ – in other words, which flowers will appear in the spring. Nature is depicted as a mother, rocking the various cradles where the plants are sleeping. Leontodon is dandelion, Rhodora the rhododendron. And how I love the ‘chubby daffodil’! Epigea is the trailing arbutus, a common vine in the USA, where Dickinson lived.
I think the whole poem begs to be illustrated and put in a book for children. It teeters on the edge of saccharine but, for me, it doesn’t actually fall in. See what you think.
Whose are the little beds, I asked
Which in the valleys lie?
Some shook their heads, and others smiled—
And no one made reply.
Perhaps they did not hear, I said,
I will inquire again—
Whose are the beds—the tiny beds
So thick upon the plain?
‘Tis Daisy, in the shortest—
A little further on—
Nearest the door—to wake the Ist—
‘Tis Iris, Sir, and Aster—
Anemone, and Bell—
Bartsia, in the blanket red—
And chubby Daffodil.
Meanwhile, at many cradles
Her busy foot she plied—
Humming the quaintest lullaby
That ever rocked a child.
Hush! Epigea wakens!
The Crocus stirs her lids—
Rhodora’s cheek is crimson,
She’s dreaming of the woods!
Then turning from them reverent—
Their bedtime ’tis, she said—
The Bumble bees will wake them
When April woods are red.
– F85 (1859) 142