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I've been a Canberran since moving here from Adelaide on the first day of 1980. I now live in suburban Duffy with my partner Louise Maher, ABC 666 radio and on-line journalist. Among my early memories is following Sleepy Lizards (Shinglebacks) around the paddocks north of Adelaide, guarded by the faithful bull terrier. I have always been passionate about the natural world, trying to understand how it works, how the nature of Australia came to be, and sharing those understandings. My especial passions are birds, orchids and mammals. For much of my life I have been a full-time naturalist, running bush tours, writing books etc, doing consultancies, presenting a regular radio slot on local ABC, chairing a government environment advisory committee and running adult education classes. Recently I have eased back somewhat, but am still writing, teaching, doing some radio work and running overseas tours - as part of my fascination with our Gondwanan origins I've been running tours to South America for the past decade. I was awarded the Australian Plants Society Award in 2001 and the Australian Natural History Medallion in 2006, both for services to education and conservation. In January 2018 I was awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia for 'service to conservation and the environment'.

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Considering the Lilies: part 1

The other day we were walking in Mulligans Flat Nature Reserve on the northern edge of Canberra; for the whole time we surrounded by millions of Early Nancies, low-growing native lilies.
Massed Early Nancies Wurmbea dioca Family Colchicaceae, Mulligans Flat NR, Canberra.
It got me thinking that lilies would be a great topic for a blog post, but the more I thought about it, and after I'd checked up on recent changes in thinking of the place of lilies in the world, I realised that there are actually at least two and probably three postings involved, just because of the numbers of 'lilies'. I use the inverted commas there because the question of what actually is a lily is a very vexed one. 

At one stage the answer seemed easy - everything in the family Liliaceae. But... The family was described by Antoine Jussieu in 1789, and was basically defined as any herb with six roughly equal flower parts, six stamens, an ovary that sits above the flower base, and three sections within the ovary. Unfortunately it soon became obvious that this definition included very many species indeed. In fact despite growing concerns which had begun to be expressed in the mid-19th century as to the validity of the family, by 1980 the definition had actually been broadened and the family included over 300 genera and nearly 5000 species!

Reality kicked in then and people began looking at the real relationships, resulting in a major break-up of the family and the erection of close to 50 new genera and quite a few new families. With new biochemical tools in particular, the work is proceeding and more changes have recently been made and widely accepted. The artificiality of the old family is underlined by the fact that former members have been spread across not just 24 families, but two Orders - in other words many members of the old Liliaceae aren't even moderately related! For the purposes of this blog I'm going to define a 'lily' as anything that has historically been regarded as such, but I'll also explain the current situation for anyone interested as we go.

I'm going to introduce today some of those members which stayed in the order Liliales (which is the smaller of the two), but first, some lilies in history.

You may not have suspected it, but onions and garlic (family Alliaceae) are lilies by this definition. They have been grown around the Mediterranean for at least 5000 years. The Greek historian Herodotus described an inscription on the Pyramid of Cheops detailing the large sums of money spent on onions, garlic and radish (unrelated) for the labourers. Somewhere I read that the first recorded sit-down strike was staged at the Necropolis in Thebes because the onion wage wasn't being paid. Quite right too! 

In the 13th century Florence was a world trading centre; their gold coins, embossed with a lily, were called fiorin d'oro, 'little gold flower', which entered English as 'florin'. Tulips - among the few remaining members of family Liliaceae - came to Austria from Turkey in 1554 and the craze spread throughout Europe. In Holland single bulbs sold for thousands of guilders; Belgian speculators traded at the van Beurse home, hence our word 'bourse' for a stock exchange. 'Paper tulips' were promisory notes, and millions of them circulated. When the government shocked everyone by demanding that the notes had to be honoured, people went bankrupt - and many went off tulips... Another lily, the hyacinth, arrived in Europe via the middle east from the western Asian plains in the mid-16th century; within two hundred years some 3000 varieties had been developed in Holland, of which we now know only around 150.

It's a long time in this post since a picture, a dangerous thing in a blog posting, so here are some lilies of the Order Liliales. The Americas aren't particularly well endowed with native lilies, especially in the south, but one notable central and South American family is Alstroemeriaceae, with just four genera but some 250 species, including some beauties. Two of these genera, Alstromoeria and Bomarea, account for nearly the entire family, each having 100-120 species.
Alstromoeria patagonica, Torres del Paine NP, southern Chile.
This tiny herb is endemic to Patagonia.
Bomarea sp., El Cajas NP, Andes above Cuenca, Ecuador.
Bomarea sp., 4000m high cloud forest, Manu NP, Peru.
In Australia we also have a few members of this order, including the cheerful little Early Nancies I mentioned earlier, in family Colchicaceae.
Wurmbea dioica, Mulligans Flat NR, Canberra.
As the species name implies the species is dioecious - it has separate male and female plants.
Female above, male below.
A less common member of the family locally is also a grassland lily, and also named for a human female!
Milkmaids, Burchardia umbellata, Bigga cemetery, New South Wales.
An umbel is a floral arrangement whereby all the flower stalks arise from a common point,
well illustrated here and again reflecting the species name.
Burchardia rosea, Kalbarri NP, Western Australia.
A third member of the family Colchicaceae locally is found in wet forests not far to the east of here.
Schelhammera undulata, Lilac Lily, Carrington Falls, New South Wales.
The flower streaks are nectar guides, advertising hoardings for pollinating insects.

Smilacaceae is another Liliales family found in Australia as well as widely elsewhere. The most familiar member in south-eastern Australia is Smilax australis, known unkindly as Lawyer Vine (one of several species so named in fact) because it is prickly and easy to become entangled in!
Smilax australis, Monga NP, New South Wales.
The leaves are most unusual among monocots - mostly herbaceous plants like lilies, orchids and grasses - in having
net-like leaf veins, instead of simple parallel veins.
We'll leave it there for now - there are many more lilies to meet! I must say though that one of the best known quotations about lilies, the famous biblical one, "Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin" leaves me baffled. I have never understood that one - are we being exhorted to a life of sloth, hoping for the best?? Oh well, best I stick to what I know a little about.



Flabmeister said...

In case anyone thinks your reference to "millions of Early Nancys" is hyperbole I have today worked out that a million Early Nancys might occupy no more than 1 Ha. Mulligan's Flat is many Ha in extent!

The explanation I have heard of the vernacular 'Lawyer Vine' makes it clear it is criticising the venal habits of Lawyers and not the relatively innocent plant!


Anonymous said...

I do believe the photo: Bomarea sp., El Cajas NP, Andes above Cuenca, Ecuador.
Is a macleania species, a type of neotropical blueberry.