Saturday, March 03, 2007

slash and burn

There's a whole class of plants, usually found in extremely xeric, harsh desert climates, called "geophytes." (There are some lavishly "pretty" and more coddled geophytes as well: Iris, crocus, amaryllis, tulip...bulbs, basically. In this post, "geophyte" refers to the rougher, hardcore xeric types).

Geophytic plants are characterized by having a significant portion of their living tissue underground, usually in the form of a tuber, caudex or various subterranean structures of other kinds. Many desert plants evolved to have the vast majority of their living tissue buried in the cool dark, safe from predation, fires, light frosts, plant collectors with anything less than pickaxes, etc. In Madagascar, for example, where slash and burn farming techniques periodically result in as much as 30 percent of the island being in flames at one time, the many geophytic caudiciform succulents growing there survive, sending up new life in between blazes.

A fine example of a geophytic cactus from the US is Peniocereus greggii, the "night blooming cereus" of the Southwest, pictured above. The stems look like dead sticks and sometimes are completely broken off, killed by rare frosts, or burned in brush fires. Underground, an old specimen of Peniocereus greggii can have an enormous tuberous root, weighing 100 pounds or more.

P. greggii specimens in the wild give themselves away 1 or 2 nights a year when they flower. The fragrance is legendary, apparently detectable from a single plant for as much as a 1 mile radius.

Who are the geophytes in music? Stems camouflaged, dead-looking, largely underground. We don't know who they are by their above ground parts. The trick is to be buried. The flowers seem to come out of nowhere, actually resulting (briefly) from the dark itself, a darkness painstakingly guarded, nurturing, protective.

(musings partly dedicated to Leroy Jenkins, 1932-2007)

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