Category Archives: Botany

Busy Bees

Bee and flower at Huntington Gardens © Tim Jones

Here are a few shots I took this afternoon of bees feeding on/pollinating one of the many species of Aloe that populate the Huntington Gardens.

Bee and Flower ©Tim Jones

The bees burrow and completely disappear inside the tubular orange flowers.

Bee and Flower ©Tim Jones

Bee with Flower © Tim Jones

Bee and Flower © Tim Jones

Bee and Flower © Tim Jones
Bee and Flower © Tim Jones
Gone (almost).

These two shots show the pollen baskets:

Pollen baskets are attached to the hind legs by a single hair
Pollen baskets are attached to the hind legs by a single hair
Bee entering Aloe flower with pollen baskets
Bee entering Aloe flower with pollen baskets
Aloe plant at Huntington Gardens © Tim Jones
Aloe Plant at Huntington Gardens (San Marino)
Humming Bird Feeding on Aloe (©Tim Jones)
These guys get a look-in too



Charlie’s Rose

Charles Darwin wrote about roses in his The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication, but I’m guessing he didn’t expect a variety would be named in his honour.

Charles Darwin rose in the grounds of the Huntington Estate, San Marino (Photo:Tim Jones)
Charles Darwin rose in the grounds of the Huntington Estate, San Marino (Photo:Tim Jones)

I stumbled upon these today in the gardens of the Huntington (Library, Art Collection, Botanical Gardens) Estate in San Marino.    According to this rose dealer, the variety is hardy, with a ‘strong and delicious fragrance that varies between a soft, floral Tea and almost pure lemon according to weather conditions’.  Sounds like it would be right at home at Darwin’s former home in Kent (where it may indeed be for all I know).  Whatever.  Compared to some of the other blooms on show today, most of which were wilted or entirely dropped off in the December chill, these Darwin specials are putting up a pretty good show.

Charles Darwin rose (Photo:Tim Jones)Charles Darwin rose tag (Photo:Tim Jones)

Contrary to popular opinion, the British aren’t all manic gardeners, and I wouldn’t ordinarily get over-excited about a rose garden.  But spurred on by the father of evolution, I scouted out a few more scientifically inspired varieties.  Marie Curie is hanging in there but looking the worse for wear:

Marie Curie rose (Photo:Tim Jones)And one Archimedes would have approved of:

Eureka rose (Photo:Tim Jones)

Leonardo needs some tidying:

Three for the astronomers:











The geologist’s choice looks the part:





Arctic explorers only:

Then a few others that aren’t really scientific but I find interesting, intriguing or odd – I didn’t expect to find ‘Pimlico’ and the ‘Radio Times’ in California – included:

Whisky Mac, Anne Boleyn, Radio Times, Brilliant Pink Iceberg, Brownie, Everest Double Fragrance, Moon Shadow, Bewitched, Pimlico ’81, Amelia Earhart, The Doctor, School Girl, Yellowstone, Octoberfest, Charles Dickens, Dynamite, and Smiles.

Maybe gardening’s not so boring after all.

Huntington Rose Garden on a sunnier day in 2013 (Photo:Tim Jones)
Huntington Rose Garden on a sunnier day in 2013 (Photo:Tim Jones)

Flower Atlas

This beautiful flower arrangement I stumbled upon today has got to be the world’s most colourful interpretation of the Atlas myth.

Flower arrangement representing Atlas. By Sandy Hine and Anne Harman (Photo: Tim Jones)
Flower arrangement representing Atlas. By Sandy Hine and Anne Harman (Photo: Tim Jones)

In Greek mythology, the punishment meted out by Zeus to Atlas for his siding with the Titans against the Olympians was to carry the heavens on his shoulders for all time.

Atlas at the Rockefeller Centre (Wikipedia)

We’re familar with the statues of muscular bearded guys kneeling under spheres – sometimes with the earth substituted for the heavens.  And in her book and film Longitude, author Dava Sobel tells how as a child she was inspired by the Atlas statue outside New York’s Rockefeller Centre.

The Atlas arrangement by Sandy Hine and Anne Harman is one of many on display under the theme Myths & Legends at the annual Florimania exhibition running 1-3 April at Hampton Court.

Return to the Land of Charnia

However impressive my best Bear Grylls outdoorsman pose might be, it’s nothing compared to the rocks I’m standing on.

Tim Jones in Swithland Wood, Charnwood Forest
Charnwood Forest
Charnia masoni (Wikicommons)












For this is Leicestershire’s Charnwood Forest, whose +600 million year old outcrops are some of the oldest on the planet. It’s also the area where the very first precambrian macrofossils were discovered by Roger Mason in 1957 (Ref.1).

Before that time, nobody dreamt fossils of this age existed.

And to think I was born only eight miles away in Leicester; gee-whizz.  (The pic above was taken after a family get-together for my birthday a couple of weeks ago. Suspect this was a subliminal attempt to feel younger by standing on something very old.  Can’t say it was entirely successful.)

David Attenborough most recently brought Charnwood and the appropriately named fossil Charnia to popular fame in his 2010 series First Life.  And, as it turns out, he and I  are both Leicester lads who first explored Charnwood as schoolboys.  On which cue I’m handing any further science communication on this ancient world over to Sir David; here he introduces the fern-like Charnia masoni (most relevant part at 2:10 thru 5:50):

And in this piece for Radio 4 he says more about the region, Charnia masoni and its broader implications, plus more on his early fossil-collecting days in Leicestershire:

Bradgate Park, Charnwood Forest (Photo:Tim Jones)


(1) Guide to the Geology of Bradgate Park and Swithland Wood, Charnwood Forest. British Geological Survey, BGS Occasional Report OR/10/041 (pdf is here)

(2) First Life. BBC, 2010

(3) The Story of Charnia and the British Association Festival of Science

(4) A fascinating account of fossil discovery in Charnwood prior to 1957 by Tina Negus at (Thanks Tina Negus)

You might also like on Zoonomian: Attenborough on Darwin
Note: the rocks I’m standing on in the photo are in Charnwood Forest but are not the same outcrop of fossil-bearing rocks in the film

Huxley and Tyndall, Ill-Prepared Alpinists ?

It’s many years since that winter weekend I met up with friends in the UK’s Lake District National Park, intent on hiking the slopes of Helvellyn.


Helvellyn (Photo: Simon Ledingham, WikiCommons)

We’d arrived in groups from various locations, and it was during the traditional kitting-up ritual, managed out the back of our respective vehicles, that the full realisation of my ill-preparedness struck home.

Confidence in my sturdy boots and fleece failed to counter the sinking dread I felt as my friends systematically bedecked themselves, NASA pre-flight-ops style, with all the latest snow gear.  The thing was, I simply didn’t own, or had neglected to bring, the mittens, over-trousers, goggles, and miscellaneous species of crampons and ice-axe recommended by the now darkening sky.

Just as well I was in the safe invincibility of my early twenties.

Much better...

So off up the hill went we.  Almost immediately it started snowing – gently at first, with a serious deterioration setting in at 2000 feet; a full-blown blizzard now: horizontal snow, near zero-visibility, heavy reliance on compass etc.

I stood clown-like, my gaiterless cotton trousers stiff as boards, the ice caking and cracking as I lifted my legs through the thick snow.  My fingers and face went numb.  Resplendent in Gortex, my fellow hikers peered out from their hermetic cocoons, reflectorised goggles glinting from deep within wind-cheating hoods.  Proffered spare socks were gratefully accepted and fashioned into makeshift gloves.

Then as the storm blew into near total white-out, we made the only possible decision, irrespective of equipment, and turned around.

Had we pushed on, things could have got nasty.  As it was, we’d still managed something of a walk, and I guess I got what I deserved by way of a sound freezing and lesson learned.  You’ve got the picture.

In Good Company

John Tyndall

This mildy embarrassing tale comes to mind because of research I’ve been doing into the history of botany (and science stuff in general) in Wales.

And as it turns out, I’m not the first to show up for a mountain ascent without the proper kit.  What’s surprising perhaps is that, among scientists of the Victorian age, that honour goes to none other than seasoned Alpinist John Tyndall and ‘Darwin’s Bulldog’ Thomas Huxley for their 1860 ascent of – not Helvellyn this time – but Mount Snowdon in North Wales.

Thomas Huxley

Snowdonia was a major stomping ground for botanists in the 18th and 19th centuries, and by the 19th century, professional guiding had become quite a local industry.

In ‘The Botanists and Guides of Snowdonia’, Dewi Jones describes how mountain guide Robin Hughes first met up with Tyndall and Huxley:

Robin Hughes was 61 when he guided John Tyndall, the famous alpine mountaineer and scientist, up Snowdon from Gorffwysfa (now Pen y Pass) in 1860.  Tyndall, despite his Alpine experience, had arrived in the area on a snowy December day rather ill prepared for a winter assault on Snowdon, but they managed to gain the summit despite having to wade through drifts of soft snow.  Tyndall, with his friend Huxley, had brought no ice axes or gaiters with them.  They bought two rake handles at  a shop in Bethesda, while on their way from Bangor to Capel Curig, and had the local blacksmith fit them with rings and iron spikes.  During the ascent Tyndall complained of numbness in the feet as the result of his boots becoming filled with snow due to the absence of gaiters.

So, with all due credit for the last minute improvisations, one still wonders what they were thinking – especially Tyndall.  With Tyndall aged 40 and Huxley 35 in 1860, it’s not like either man could claim the inexperience of  youth.

View down Llanberis Pass from Llanberis (Photo: Tim Jones)
View down Llanberis Pass from Llanberis (Photo: Tim Jones)

A bit more digging suggests Huxley at least was distracted. The Snowdon trip had been arranged by his wife Nettie, with the help of Tyndall, to relieve the depression he suffered at the recent death of their son, Noel.  That Nettie had soon after given birth to another son only added to Huxley’s confusion (Desmond):

[Hal hardly knew whether] ‘it was pleasure or pain.  The ground has gone from under my feet once & I hardly know how to rest on anything again’

Desmond continues:

Nettie…..conspired with Tyndall to get Hal away.  That meant one thing.  In unprecedented Boxing Day frosts, when the thermometer plummeted to -17 degrees, Busk and Tyndall marched him off to the rareified air of the Welsh mountains, reaching Snowdon on 28th December.  The grandeur of it matched ‘most things Alpine. (Busk is George Busk (TJ)).

On 19th December, Huxley had written to his friend Joseph Hooker that he was:

“…going to do one sensible thing, however, viz. to rush down to Llanberis with Busk between Christmas Day and New Year’s Day and get my lungs full of hill-air for the coming session.(The Huxley Letters.)

Llanberis is the village at the base of Snowdon, and Pen y Pass the highest point in the nearby pass.  There’s a pub there now, and in 1860 an inn, where, according to Tyndall, Hughes fueled up with whisky before the trip, [and Huxley doubtless topped off his brandy flask] (Tyndall).

Snowdon Summit - in better weather (Photo:Tim Jones)
Crib Goch, Snowdon (Photo:Tim Jones)
Crib Goch, Snowdon (Photo:Tim Jones)
Snowdon Summit
Snowdon summit. No train or cafe in Tyndall's day

Fifteen years later, writing his book Hours of Exercise in the Alps, Tyndall’s torment on Snowdon was fresh in his mind:

“I had no gaiters, and my boots were incessantly filled with snow.  My own heat sufficed for a time to melt the snow; but this clearly could not go on for ever.  My left heel first became numbed and painful; and this increased till both feet were in great distress.  I sought relief by quitting the track and trying to get along the impending shingle to the right.  The high ridges afforded me some relief, but they were separated by couloirs in which the snow had accumulated, and through which I sometimes floundered waist-deep.  The pain at length became unbearable; I sat down, took off my boots and emptied them; put them on again; tied Huxley’s pocket handkerchief round one ankle; and my own round the other, and went forward once more.  It was a great improvement – the pain vanished and did not return.”

And that’s pretty much the story.  Maybe it’s because I know the territory so well, or just that I’m a big fan of both these guys; but I love the imagery of Huxley and Tyndall spilling out of Pen y Pass with their half-cut guide, then trogging up Snowdon with their frozen feet and rake handles.

Anyway, all this staring at a computer screen is unhealthy; I’m off out.

Now where did I put  those gloves……


Jones, Dewi.  The Botanists and Guides of Snowdonia. Pub. Gwasg Carreg Gwalch (Jun 1996), ISBN-10: 0863813836, ISBN-13: 978-0863813832

Tyndall, J. Hours of Exercise in the Alps. Pub. Appleton and Company 1875 (Tyndall originally described his exploits in the Saturday Review 6 Jan 1861 as ‘The Ascent of Snowdon in Winter‘, but clearly felt the tale was worth re-telling in his Alpine book)

Desmond, Adrian. Huxley The Devil’s Disciple. Pub. MIchael Joseph 1994. pp 289-290.

Jones, G.Lindsay. The Capel Curig Footpaths up Snowdon, A Brief History (link to pdf at

The Huxley File (Charles Blinderman) at Clark University

Clark, R.W. The Huxleys. Pub. Heinemann, 1968. P64

Related posts on Zoonomian

Happy Birthday Thomas Henry Huxley

Fine Words

Unlikely Ink?

oak galls
Oak Galls, Andricus kollari (I believe this particular tree is a Californian coastal scrub oak, Quercus dumosa.)(photo:Tim Jones)

A good few Zoonomian posts are based on things or events I just happen to stumble onto.  And that’s certainly the case with these oak galls I snapped on a trail walk this week.

These hard woody growths, about 1.5 inches across, are induced by insects interfering with the oak plant’s bio-chemistry.

Typically a wasp, like Neuroterus albipes in the photo, lays an egg on an oak twig, along with chemicals that react with the plant’s hormones to trigger growth of the gall, making both a home and ready meal for the wasp grub.   On occasion, secondary parasites of other species may join the ‘host’ grub after the gall has formed.  It looks from the multiple holes like that’s what’s happened here.

Gall Wasp (Wikicommons)

Historically, oak galls have been useful to humans as a main ingredient of Iron Gall Ink, in common use from before the middle ages to Victorian times.   I made iron gall ink as a kid, which probably explains why I got so excited when I saw these.  And while I’ll concede the skill is probably not a 21st century essential, making the stuff is quite satisfying.

So if you’re up for a little kitchen science, you will need: a handful of oak galls, some ferrous sulphate and, optionally if you want the ink to have a good consistency, some Gum Arabic.

The chemistry begins when the crushed galls are mixed with water, causing the tannin, or gallo-tannic acid COOH.C6H2(OH)2O.COC6H2(OH)3 in them to form gallic acid C6(COOH)H(OH)3H.  Adding hydrated ferrous sulphate FeSO4, 7 H2O  to this forms the ink, a soluble ferrous tannate complex.

As regards procedure, you should get a workable product by smashing up 5 or 6 oak galls and boiling them down to about a 1/4 pint in water and filtering the liquid through a cloth or handkerchief; then dissolve about a teaspoon of ferrous sulphate in a shot-glass sized measure, and mix the two together.  Instant medieval ink.   For a much more thorough and professional approach, see this article from the Conservation Division of the Library of Congress.  BTW – ferrous sulphate can be bought in art shops, garden supply stores, and some health stores – you want iron(II)sulphate, FeSO4 – not anything else.

Ferrous Sulphate (Wikicommons)

The advantage iron gall ink brought over previous inks was its permanence. Because ferrous tannate is water soluble, the ink soaks into the paper, where the ferrous tannate oxidises to insoluble – and darker – ferric tannate, which is now trapped in the fabric of the paper.  Various refinements are seen in recipes, such as the addition of extra acid, maybe as vinegar, to keep the ink from oxidising in the pot, as it were.  A drawback of iron gall inks is their corrosive action, sometimes only apparent over a long period, and in extreme cases resulting in writing literally dropping out of the paper.

Despite the corrosion issues, many famous documents were written in iron gall ink, including the dead sea scrolls (the black ink that is; the red ink is cinnabar, or mercuric sulphide HgS), and the Constitution of the United States.

The Dead Sea Scrolls are written in iron gall ink (Wikicommons)

A Bit of a Stink at The Huntington

I’ve always thought I’ll someday meet a celebrity if I visit Los Angeles often enough; I just didn’t expect it would be a plant.

'Stinky' Amorphophallus titanum at the Huntington Botanical Gardens (Photo:Tim Jones)

Meet Amorphophallus titanum, or Titan Arum, or ‘Corpse Flower’, or simply ‘Big Stinky’ to it’s friends at the Huntington Botanical Gardens in Pasadena.

The deal with Stinky, one of the largest and smelliest flowers you’re ever likely meet, is that most of the time it keeps that outer petal-like spathe tightly closed around its central spadix.  Only on rare occasions, often with years between events, does the flower open up for a very short time, simultaneously attracting pollinating insects inside with a disgusting (to us) odour – hence ‘Corpse Flower’.

We’ve been following the plant’s progress on this Huntington blog, in a bid to time our visit to coincide with its opened, smelly, best.  As it turned out, having heard on Saturday it was blooming, we drove over today, Sunday, only to find it had closed up again; job done apparently: bad smells, insects, the lot.

Luckily, while I enjoy a bit of botany now and then, I’m not obsessive about it, so won’t be falling on my trowel any time soon.  But for some, I get the feeling it’s like an astronomer missing an eclipse or a transit of Venus.

You can see the plant wasn’t totally closed up (see the Huntington website for the plant in bloom) and we did get a sniff of a collected sample of it’s insect-attractant discharge; not pleasant, but I wouldn’t like to comment on its corpseiness.

So, an interesting diversion all the same.  And a good job by the Huntington marketing team; I’m sure they give Stinky a big hug when no-one’s looking.

Moving on from smelly plants now.  This was the first time I’d visited the Huntington since the Dibner Hall of the History of Science was opened in late 2008.  The permanent exhibition, Beautiful Science, is wonderful, and you’ll find that doubly so if you like rare old books covering subjects ranging from astronomy to natural history to medicine and light.

Newton’s own copy of Optiks is here – how’d they get that?  And I liked the accurate reproductions of Galileo’s telescope that visitors can use to spy a simulated moon across the hall – moving their eye around to find the exit pupil like Galileo must have done; and Hooke’s microscope, with a genuine flea like the one Hooke so painstakingly drew in Micrographia.  There is even an original 18th century volume from Diderot’s Encyclopedie that the public can (carefully) leaf through.  Nice trusting touch.

All in all, the Huntington: comprising library, art collections, and botanical gardens, is well worth a visit.

What were they thinking?

I’ve just received this photograph from my good mate Sven, showing Alfred Russel Wallace’s grave and ‘tombstone’ in Broadstone Cemetery, in Dorset.

Alfred Russell Wallace's Grave
Alfred Russel Wallace's Grave

Now I know as a member of the ‘Carry-On’ generation my sensibilities are tainted, but all the same, in the spirit of low-brow citizen scientific journalism, it’s good to see A.R. can still stand tall in this remembrance year of his more celebrated associate in evolution – Charles Darwin.

Plaque on A.R.Wallace's grave
Plaque on A.R.Wallace's grave

The structure is in fact a two metres high fossil tree trunk, and the plaque on the wide-angle photo  is for his wife Anne; presumably interred in the same grave.  This is the plaque for A.R. .

Natural Shrinkage

Back to the (more) serious stuff soon.  But to finish the apple story, how scary is this?


Hot on the heels of the Amazing Shrinking Head, I’ve dug this out of the archives.  Taken last year at Hampton Court Palace,  it’s an apple that has naturally dried out after someone stuck it on a spiked  fence.  With skin this time, there seems to be a natural predilection to eye-holes, and maybe a trace of nose?   (BenGoldacreDisclaimer – warning, one example does not constitute a scientifically, statistically significant, sample. Great Metro copy though).

But non significant
But not significant

Make It An Araucaria heterophylla Christmas

It’s never too early to plan for next Christmas, so here is my insightful and environmentally friendly recommendation for next year’s christmas tree.

Araucaria heterophylla. Photo: WikiCommons

Without calculating  the detailed carbon footprint of that temporarily living  piney off-cut standing beglittered in your lounge, or the plastic alternative you picked up for £20 at Woolies’ terminal sale, it’s probably safe to say both are more environmentally harmful, more expensive, and probably less attractive than the alternative – a living christmas tree.

From my experience this Christmas, I can happily recommend the arboreal company of a Norfolk Island Pine, a handsome 7ft tall in its pot, and supporting all the lights and trimmings you could want.  Cometh twelfth night, this tree can, unlike its temporary cousins, be returned to the garden until next year.   Or, if you don’t enjoy the favourable climate of Southern California, just keep it indoors like a regular potted plant.  Either way – low maintenance, low hassle.

Starting next year, make one part of your family.