I went back in time, sort-of, last summer when I re-visited the scene of my First Contact – with parasitic plants, not aliens. But not mistletoe – this was a different parasite…
Randan Wood, near Dodford in Worcestershire, was where I first saw Ivy Broomrape, Orobanche hederae, a root parasite of Ivy. The occasion was sometime in the mid 1970s when I would have been about 14. The day was a little unusual – a variant of my usual (but odd for a teenager) habit of walking out alone on Sunday afternoons to explore new footpaths and find new plants. On this particular day I was meeting Fred Fincher, an elderly (to me, but probably only in his fifties) naturalist who lived in the wood. He wrote a column on natural history in the local paper and I had invited myself, as a fellow naturalist, to his house (not much more than a hut) in the woods.
It’s probably not the sort of thing teenagers do these days – visiting strange men who live in little huts in the woods, several miles walk from home, but that’s what I did. Fred made me a Ribena drink (with v cloudy water I recall – am not sure what the supply was) and we sat down to talk about plants. At the time I had a particular interest in fungi, and he showed me his library of mycological identification guides including the original Danish (I think) edition of Lange and Hora’s publication (which had become, in translation, one of the first Collins guide to fungi).
And we had a potter around outside his little house, looking at interesting plants. One of which, in the ivy at the foot of the house walls, was Orobanche hederae, whose chlorophyll-free flower spikes were conspicuous. My recollection is that Fred said he had sown seed there, amongst the ivy, and was really pleased it had grown.
That was my only direct encounter with Fred but it may have a lot to answer for. Just a few years later, when studying botany at Bristol, I chose to do my final year project on Orobanche hederae, which was surprisingly common around the Avon Gorge. I completely messed up the project, which was supposed to be about the haustorial structures connecting parasite to host roots. My microtome cutting technique failed to section any of these structures properly (sorry Dr Gledhill) so the project became a mish-mash of increasingly desperate other trivia on Orobanche. This, despite dooming me to a poor grade, left me fascinated by parasitic plants – and the rest, as they say, is history…
I never met Fred again, and he died many years ago. His library survives, bequeathed to the Worcestershire Wildlife Trust and kept in their offices at Smite near Droitwich. And Randan Wood, which he owned (originally bought by his parents as a chicken farm if I recall correctly) is now a Worcestershire Wildlife Trust Reserve.
So what happened in summer 2014? My time travel? Well, we were holidaying in Dodford, amongst the Chartist cottages, staying in Rosedene, the one restored by the National Trust, and a walk to Randan seemed essential. I was a little nervous, not being sure what was left of Fred’s place. So I was pleasantly surprised, but also a little shocked, to find it still stood, derelict and unloved, but recognisable still with fitted bookcases still in situ. And there was lots of Ivy, everywhere.
At the house itself we couldn’t find any Orobanche, which seemed disappointing – but in the edge of the track, just a few yards away, we found mature flowering spikes. These were by now (this was August) setting seed, so I gathered some in an envelope (Orobanche has very fine powdery seeds) to scatter amongst some ivy roots at home.
Want to grow your own parasitic plant?
Why not try Mistletoe (so much more useful than Orobanche!)?