Sandy’s Garden ... Astericus Hierochunticus

We have not long returned from a cruise to what might well be termed, ‘Selected Trouble Spots of the Middle East’.

Although the cruise line did not seem to think much of my suggestion. But when one considers that the itinerary included Istanbul, that part of the Mediterranean waters where frail craft carrying refugees throng, Jerusalem, Safaga in Egypt and sailing through the waters of the Red Sea within sight of the Yemen before we passed through the Straits of Hormuz within sight of Iran, I think my idea merited rather more consideration than it was given!

Whatever, while we were in Israel we spent some time in the remains of the ancient city of Caesarea, where our local guide … and entrepreneur … introduced us to a fascinating, tiny flower, of which she had a selection for sale. I thought she gave its name as Asterix pygmalion and it took me a fair time hunting the internet before I discovered that what I had written down as ‘Asterix pygmalion’ should really have been ‘Asteriscus pygmaeus’, which is a scientific synonym for the ‘Asteriscus hierochunticus’ of the title, which is also known to the scientific community as ‘Pallenis hierochuntica’ … and no, I am not making any of this up, these really are alternative scientific names for this particular resurrection plant.

Let’s start with what a resurrection plant is. A resurrection plant is any poikilohydric plant … and that’s a plant which lacks any mechanism to prevent desiccation … that can survive extreme dehydration, even over months or years, and seems to be dead until it is restored to activity when it gets wet. Asteriscus hierochunticus is such a plant, which is found in the Judean Desert, the Lower Jordan Valley and pretty much throughout the Negev. The plant has woody stems which end in small flowers which bloom during the winter when the desert is at its coolest and dampest - both relative terms to residents of central Scotland. It has to be said that the flowers are decidedly unexciting to look at, being a drab olive green and very small. Their purpose is, in common with all flowers, to attract pollinating insects to allow the plant to produce seed which it then stores singly, in a tiny dry fruit … one might perhaps call it a tiny nut … that does not open to release the seed. (Asteriscus hierochunticus hides its seed in this way to protect them from seed-eating wildlife.) And have you, gentle reader, seen the problem? If the plant hangs on to its seed, how does it propagate its species?

Now we come to the clever bit. If the flower gets wet, the plant tissue absorbs water and swells, causing the flower to open; and as the tissue subsequently dries out, which it does very quickly, it contracts, dislodging a few of the tiny fruits which fall out before the flower closes and are later dispersed by the wind or the rain. This is how Asteriscus hierochunticus fulfils its primary purpose of reproduction, protecting its seed from predators until they can safely be released, allowing it to survive in the desert for tens of thousands of years.

And, because my wife and I had never encountered a resurrection plant before … and there are quite a number of them … we were very willing to buy a flowerhead from our guide, blissfully unaware that many nineteenth century writers had commented on the practice of selling such plants … in their ‘lifeless’ form … to visitors, having demonstrated the remarkable ability of the tiny bloom to come alive by sprinkling it with water. We can usually resist the blandishments of shops, stalls and itinerant vendors who seek to persuade us to part with our money for some kind of often-tacky tourist souvenir: but we fell for the curiosity value of Asteriscus hierochunticus hook, line and sinker. I may even call it Asterix!