Dear Readers, I was very excited when I spotted this plant at Camley Street Natural Park in Kings Cross last week. Actually, to be fair I didn’t spot it – it was mentioned on the list of ‘sightings’ by the cafe, but I had to ask the warden where to find it. She was very helpful, and of course once I’d seen it I felt like a right twit because it was everywhere.
Sadly, I’d missed the peak flowering for this most peculiar plant, but this is what it looks like when it’s in its prime – I think it looks like a slightly sinister hyacinth.
Broomrapes are a fascinating family of parasitic plants, and some are very focussed and prey on only one species, while others are a bit less fussy. They have no chlorophyll of their own, hence their rather ghostly appearance, and so they are completely dependent on other plants for their nutrients. The seeds lurk in the soil until they detect the roots of their host plant. At this point they germinate and send out little roots of their own, which attach to, in this case, the ivy. They remind me of fungi, as they disappear altogether once the flower heads have finished.
The name ‘Orobanche’ means ‘bitter-vetch strangler’, not surprising as some species of broomrape are parasitic on various vetches (members of the Fabaceae or bean family). And while broomrape sounds as if it might refer to the plant’s parasitic nature, in fact it comes from the Latin for tuber, rapum – so broomrape actually means ‘tuber growing on broom’ rather than something more awful.
Ivy broomrape is largely a plant of Central and Northern Europe, though there is a single population in the University of Berkeley’s gardens, in California. There is a persistent rumour that the plant was introduced deliberately to try to control the spread of ivy, itself an alien plant. The consensus seems to be, however, that the parasite doesn’t do long-term or extensive damage to ivy, and certainly in Camley Street the whole understorey of the woods was covered in a lush carpet of green.
One or two members of the broomrape family can be problematic, however: branched broomrape (Orobanche ramosa) might look as pretty as a picture with its blue flowers, but it is a notorious parasite of food crops such as potatoes and tomatoes, and can cause total crop failure in parts of south-western Europe and North Africa.
However, as revenge, humans eat the stems of the bean broomrape (Orobanche crenata) in the region of Apulia in Italy, where the plant is known as sporchia.
And here it is cooked, and looking very tasty. You can get the recipe here
Medicinally, the herbalist Nicolas Culpeper stated that broomrapes could be used as a cure for kidney and bladder stones, normally when decocted in wine. It was also considered efficacious when used in a poultice for ‘fretting ulcers’ and ‘scabby sores’. A strong solution of the flowers was believed to remove freckles and blemishes.
And finally, a poem. I didn’t expect to find anything on broomrapes, but actually I found two! Here is one by Giles Watson, from a series of poems on plants and their history, folklore and biology. There are some very interesting works on the site here.
Broomrape (Orobanche spp.) by Giles Watson
Blanched as blood-drained flesh,
Broomrapes grow in deepest shade
Despising the sun. Their leaves
Are scales, their racemes rise
From soil, like vampires’ fingers,
The flowers shadowed, bruised
Like vampires’ eyes.
Hidden from sight, roots
Clamp round roots, suck
From the flux of life.
No need to grow green:
Flourish, rather, on others’ juices.
And here is a poem by Fiona Pitt-Kethley, which is rather more about minerals than plants, but fun nonetheless. You can see the stones that she’s writing about here.
The Opal Menilites of Agramón
Bright yellow broomrape bursting from the clay,
close to the minerals we’re searching for.
Nothing’s what you’d expect in Agramón.
Blue-grey on grey at first they look discreet
and crisp as sugared almonds in the walls
until we marvel at their varied forms.
This quarry’s the sex-shop of the mineral scene:
Willendorf Venuses, testicles, dicks
beside more toy-like marbles, skittles, ducks
and half-formed pre-pubescent young girls’ breasts.
A heavenly jest, perhaps. Exuberant,
tumescent, waiting in their matrixes.
If stones could speak these ones would say to me:
“Release us on an unsuspecting world…”
Photo One by By No machine-readable author provided. Aroche assumed (based on copyright claims). – No machine-readable source provided. Own work assumed (based on copyright claims)., CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1162590
Photo Two By Scott Zona from USA – Orobanche hederaeUploaded by pixeltoo, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7513606
Photo Three By Javier martin – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3864360
Photo Four By © Hans Hillewaert, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6153027
Photo Five from https://www.cosedicucina.it/sporchia