Cryptogams: The Secret Lives of Spore-Bearing Plants


Giles Watson


There can be few more fertile interchanges between science and lore than that which has revolved for centuries around Cryptogams. The name itself is inspiring, for while on the surface it tells us, rightly enough, that the sexual lives of these plants are hidden and mysterious, the novice who begins to pay attention to them will quickly realise that so much more than this has been encrypted.

For an amateur naturalist trained to identify flowering plants, there is the fact that Cryptogams are much more difficult to pin down. In the case of fungi, of course, we are apt to overstress the difficulty, for whilst the misidentification of a species of Geranium may occasion some embarrassment (if, indeed, it is ever noticed), a similar error applied to species of Amanita can have far more distressing results. Ferns, with the exception of a few very common or very remarkable species, are rarely differentiated in the lay person’s mind at all, so much so that most of their ‘common names’ are simply translations of their generic and specific ones. Mosses, for most, are simply padding for plant-pots, and the Club Mosses, despite their name, are only vaguely related. In order to become authoritative, one must be initiated into the mysteries, and this can only happen when one can speak the language, and distinguish a decurrent gill from one that is adnexed, or determine whether a rachis is branched or unbranched. And just when the arcane discipline seems to be mastered, more fundamental questions begin to vex the enquirer, such as whether fungi are really plants in the first place.

Nor is it surprising that Lewis Carroll placed his hookah-smoking caterpillar on top of a Cryptogam, for when it comes to exploring the secret lives of these plants, or researching the narcotic effects of a few of them, we really are through the looking-glass. Most of us feel out of place in a world in which whales can be carried on one’s upturned finger, or in which the thing that emerges from a chrysalis is not a moth, but a sort of toadstool. Fear has a role to play too, and largely, it seems, it is a fear of something primeval, which may kill us if we are incautious, and which may yet outlast us in any case.

All of these reactions of the recently initiated are, of course, so much better than the indifference of the many, who for the most part are unaware that the mysteries even exist. These poems have been written not in an attempt to decipher the code or unravel the mystery, for this is largely impossible. They are merely little celebrations of the secret.

Part One: Fungi

Armillaria mellea

In the air, like dust, basidiospores

Hang, seeking for a point of invasion,

A million of them wasted on live wood.

But one shall choose this decomposing stump

And build itself a stronghold. Sporophores,

Honey yellow, sprout and gleam, like wet flesh,

And beneath the mould, rhizomorphs probe,

Long, black worms, seeking out the living roots.

Assassin hyphae crawl through the cambium,

Strangling the tree. Black bootlace strands

Split the bark and wood. Leaves curl, and die,

Buds fail in spring. Branches break and fall.

     By the dark of the moon, by the hooting owl,

     Green luminescence. The gleam of death.

Source material. The honey fungus, Armillaria mellea, parasitizes trees to death. It begins life as a saprophytic mycelium, producing honey-coloured fruiting bodies on the sides of dead tree-stumps. However, the fungus then sends out subterranean rhizomorphs which seek out the roots of living trees, penetrate them, and gradually kill them. A tree which has been killed by honey fungus is readily identified by the looseness of the bark, which can be pulled away to reveal networks of rhizomorphs, which look like black bootlaces. See C.T. Ingold, The Nature of Toadstools, The Institute of Biology’s Studies in Biology, No. 113, London, 1979, pp. 52–53. Armillaria is also a spectacular source of bioluminescence – an entertaining discussion of this topic may be read in John Ramsbottom, Mushrooms and Toadstools: a study of the activities of fungi, London, 1953, Chapter 14.

Giles Watson (October 2004)

Marasmius oreades

Faerie-ring, faerie-ring,

With toadstool throne for faerie-king,

Watch them dance there in a ring,

But beware of faerie poisoning!

Don’t rely on smell or taste!

Are the gills quite widely spaced?

Are they whitish, as they ought?

Are some long and others short?

Is the cap shaped like a bell?

Is the stem quite thin as well,

And is it fibrous like shoe-lace—

Is it fuzzy round the base?

If so, they might be safe to try

(And if not, you might not die),

But just in case you get it wrong,

I’ll list the symptoms (won’t take long):

Blurry vision, lots of sweating,

Accompanied by nervous fretting,

A nervous twitch, too—oh! Poor dear!

And a spot of diarrhoea!

Delicious faerie champignon!

Delightful thing to dine upon!

Come! Sit down! Eat well! Devour!

You’ll know your fate in half an hour!

Source material. The delicious fairy ring champignon, Marasmius oreades, is not at any costs to be confused with Clitocybe dealbata or Clitocybe rivulosa, both of which also grow in fairy-ring formations.

Giles Watson (October 2004)

Phallus impudicus

Gerard must have doubted the propriety

Of the creator, for he printed his diagram

Upside-down, so as not to offend. Yet

He named it without blushing:

Pricke Mushrom, Fungus Virilis, Penis effigie”.

First, it is like one of the devil’s balls,

Which he dropped in his hurry.

Then it thrusts forth; the shaft lengthens,

The sticky head aspires to sky,

Grows foetid with the sweat of questing,

Quivers with the pulse of earth.

Listen. You can hear it groaning

With the burden of all that sperm.

At last, plied by flies, it is primed

For its own sickly orgasm; the glans

All green and engorged, as though

A breath of wind could make it blow.

Source material. Whilst my simile about the devil’s balls is, to my knowledge, original, it has precedents in Dodoens (1563) who thought the undeveloped fungi were the eggs of spirits or devils (“Manium sive Daemonum ova”), and in a tradition amongst German hunters, who called the Stinkhorn “Hirschbrunst”, in the belief that it grew where stags had rutted. See John Ramsbottom, Mushrooms and Toadstools, p. 181. The foetid odour of the mature fruiting body is designed to attract flies, which spread the spores, and whilst it is quite harmless, it has long caused, in Ramsbottom’s words, “needless anxiety about sanitation.” A letter to The Times in 1865 went so far as to blame the fungus for cholera epidemics.

Giles Watson (October 2004)

Amanita muscaria

I am Big Raven of the Koryac, whale catcher

With the big grass bag, stranded with my whale

Miles from sea. In my bag are the whale’s provisions:

Jerk-bodied krill, ink-stained squid with human eyes.

It is too big for me to carry. So is the whale,

And the gallons of sea water I need to slurry his side.

I shall go unto Vah´nin for aid; he will answer.

“Go to the plains before the sea,” said Vah´nin,

“Look for the spirits of WŃpaq, white soft stalks

Wearing spotted hats. Eat of them, and they

Will help you.” I pulled them by their ground-venting

Volvas, ran my finger past each ring, folded

Like a white foreskin; sniffed, suspiciously

At the bleached and radiating gills, peeled

A little of the flecked and blushing skin,

Then ate, and the gills turned and whirled

Like a white kaleidoscope, combining

No colours, entrancingly. I went back

To the whale, and he had shrunk

To a hundredth of his accustomed,

Blubber-threshing size. I danced for joy,

And flipped up the travelling bag

With my little finger, poised the whale

On my upturned thumb-tip, and capered

For the shore, splashed by foaming surf.

I watched him breeching in the threshed brine,

Submerging with his brothers, and I said,

“Let the Agaric remain upon the ground;

And my children see what it may show.”

Source material. The Koryac revere the Fly-Agaric, eating it to achieve transcendental states. They believe that the mushroom is endowed with particular power, and the legend related above is described in detail by John Ramsbottom, Mushrooms and Toadstools: A Study of the Activities of Fungi, London, 1953, p. 45. Amongst other hallucinogenic effects caused by the alkaloid muscaridine, Fly Agaric ingestion causes partakers to perceive surrounding objects either as very large or very small. Any reader determined to test this should be warned that Fly Agarics also contain muscarine, a poison which causes acute gastro-intestinal distress. Devotees of the agaric, including the Koryac, claim that the muscarine may be evaporated by baking or drying the mushrooms. Although classed in textbooks as poisonous, the Fly Agaric is, according to Ramsbottom, eaten readily in the south of France. It is possible that its level of toxicity is variable according to region; it is certainly not as deadly as some other Amanita species. The Koryac legend offers no explanation as to what Big-Raven was doing with a whale so far from sea.

Giles Watson (October, 2004)

Lycoperdon spp.

For the benefit of boys

With scabby knees

These have evolved:

When white, we eat them,

Sliced with a penknife,

Spitting in butter.

When yellow, we kick them,

With gateways for goalposts,

’Til they split and spatter.

But it is best by far

When they are brown,

And the fat gleba

Is a-glut with spores,

And we squeeze

Their leathery skins,

And it all bursts forth

Like one stupendous fart—

All the better

For being visible—

And we are laughing

And pelting down the dale,

Elated by this brazen


We did this all the autumn;

Never knew you could

Smoke out bees with them,

Or staunch the flow of blood.

Source material. Puff balls, especially the Giant Lycoperdon giganteum, make superb eating when they are still white. Gerard was clearly not ignorant of the wind-breaking analogy when he called them Lupi crepitus. The last stanza refers to two further uses for puff-balls, long known to country lore: the spores really do act as a styptic, and can be used to stupefy bees.

Giles Watson (October 2004)

Amanita phalloides

The membrane splits and hangs in shreds

Like milk-skin from a cooling spoon.

About the stem, the volva hangs, flaccid.

Torn up by a woman’s hand, and all

The olive peel stripped back, by fingernails.

“You shall have the largest of these dainties,

Dear; it was set aside with you in mind.”

And nothing happened, not

Until nothing could be done.

How your mind is haunted by those

White gills seethed in wine. Every time

You retch, you see visions of them.

Thirst etches your insides; cold sweats

Cling to you. And this remission

Is the cruellest ruse of all, for after

Comes the coma, and slick and clammy death.

Source material. Suetonius, Tacitus and Dio Cassius all maintained that the Roman Emperor Claudius was poisoned with a dish of mushrooms. Some of the sources add that the poisonous dish was prepared by Locusta, at the command of Claudius’s wife Agrippina. In all likelihood, Claudius thought he was eating the prized esculent Amanita caesarea, which has an orange cap before cooking. A servant versed in elementary mycology would no doubt have found it easy to replace one of these delectable mushrooms with a specimen of Amanita phalloides, the most poisonous mushroom in the world. Around ninety per cent of recorded deaths from mushroom poisoning are caused by this plant, and only a few grams are required for a fatal dose. It is hazardous even to breathe the spores. The baleful effects of the poison do not exhibit themselves for around twelve hours after ingestion; by this time, there is normally irrevocable damage to the liver and other body tissues. After two or three days, the symptoms seem to subside, but this is merely a prelude to delirium, coma, and death. Readers desiring further information should consult John Ramsbottom, Mushrooms and Toadstools, pp. 33, 39–44, Michael Jordan, Mushroom Magic, London, 1989, p. 36, and Robert Graves’s novel, Claudius the God.

Giles Watson (October 2004)

Cordyceps militaris

Would have emerged a white moth,

But for the spore that chanced

Upon her, while she was yet

A champing caterpillar on a leaf.

Now, by one of those ironies

Which is tragedy wrought tiny,

She herself is the root and food

For some red and slender plant,

Her guts and wings and compound eyes

A tangle of fungal hyphae, inside

Her withered coffin of a chrysalis,

Buried by her own toil; her grave

Marked only by this fleshy flower

Of her substance made. Only spores

Which catch the wind and fly

Tell ought of what she might have been.

Source material: Cordyceps militaris is an entomogenous fungus, parasitizing the larvae of moths which pupate underground. Spores which land on a caterpillar germinate whilst the host is still in the larval stage, and penetrate beneath the insect’s chitin. After pupation, the fungus kills and engulfs its host before sending up its fruiting body. See Ramsbottom, Mushrooms and Toadstools, pp. 149–153.

Giles Watson (October 2004)

Hirneola auricularia-Judae

So delicate, it is almost veined, and across it,

some stray filament is like spit on a moistened mouth

opening to kiss. So changeable too; a goblet

of flesh when wet, a shrivelled thing when dry,

waiting for some rain to engorge it.

                                                        Nothing like

the ear of some Judas, whose kiss was dry,

the lips pursed, and holding back saliva. Think,

rather, of the Elder witch’s lips, which speak

from the pith into the hoary night, telling

women to become flesh, and men to turn to stone.

Source material. A rather repellent anti-semitic tradition has it that Judas hanged himself on an Elder tree, and that the Jew’s Ear Fungus, Hirneola auricularia-Judae, is the everlasting commemoration of his suicide. See John Ramsbottom, Mushrooms and Toadstools, pp. 74–75. I prefer the myth, associated with ancient sites such as the Rollright Stones, which holds that elder trees can transform into witches, and vice versa.

Giles Watson (October 2004)

Polyporus spp.

The dignified secession of a tree

back into soil, is assisted by this:

a squamous saddle of fungus, turning

solid wood to butter-soft mould.

But what a gainly death this is,

with its slow and graceful gnarling

at the limb! And what happier way

to die, than being ridden by a dryad?

Source material. Many fungi have evocative common names, but none more so than the Dryad’s Saddle, Polyporus squamosus, which I have often admired growing from the trunks of trees in Burnham Beeches. It is one of a family of fungi which ably assist in the process of converting wood back into the mould from which it invariably arises.

Giles Watson (October 2004)

Coprinus comatus

Pick them under pines, before their shaggy caps have blotched themselves to ink,

Blooming from the needled ground, where pungent horses’ turds have mouldered,

And the long stems have risen like corporeal ghosts, bruised by your fingers.

I like them seethed in milk, as my father cooked them once, when I was small,

And I ate them with relish, then spat into my sleeve, compulsively, in fear

Of poison. I remember them so well, still sizzling in their buttered bath,

In a white dish, and the way their pink-white flesh slithered through my lips,

A paroxysm of sense. The melting in the mouth of my first initiation.

Source material. The Shaggy Cap, Coprinus comatus, is quite delectable, and never poisonous, although it should always be eaten before the cap begins to wither and the spores are released. Its near relative, the Ink Cap, C. atramentarius, is also edible, but should never be consumed in combination with alcohol, as this causes alarming symptoms, including nausea and palpitations.

Giles Watson (October 2004)

Claviceps purpurea

First came the Mysteries: the vertigo

And the trembling, the chill and the sweat,

The wet sheets and the sights

That made all seeing blindness.

The brilliance met with silence.

Then, the visions turned to fire,

The delusions and convulsions,

The swollen blisters and the

Loathsome rot. Men hauled

Their mummified limbs

To St Antony’s shrine,

And beseeched with shrieks

While demons plied them

With glowing pokers ’til they died.

Those who listened to Tituba

Caught it; fitted and gibbered

In indecipherable tongues,

Named the ones who did the witchery

And watched them die.

Consumed by the ergot in the rye.

Source material. Ergot is caused by a fungus (Claviceps purpurea), and contains the alkaloids ergotamine and ergotoxine, derived from lysergic acid. According to Richard Evans Schultes and Albert Hofmann, Plants of the Gods: their Sacred, Healing and Hallucinogenic Powers, Vermont, 1992, pp. 102–105, the Eleusian mysteries were probably caused by Ergot poisoning, and the first stanza is a description of the typical psychotropic effects of ingesting the fungus in infected cereals. Aside from its hallucinogenic properties, however, ergot is also extremely poisonous, either causing nervous symptoms such as convulsions, epileptic seizures, twitching, spasms of the limbs, and abortions, or alternatively causing gangrene resulting in the loss of limbs and usually death. During the middle ages, outbreaks of ergotism were commonly known as St. Antony’s Fire, after the wealthy Frenchman Gaston promised his fortune to the cult of St. Antony if the saint would miraculously cure him and his son. It is also probably significant that medieval portrayals of the “Temptation of St. Antony”, with their vicious-looking demons, so often appear to be depictions of hallucinations. See John Ramsbottom, Mushrooms and Toadstools, pp. 145–146. On more than one occasion, modern scholars have put forward the theory that outbreaks of witchcraft persecution were often responses to ergotism, the most obvious example being the Salem witch trials in Massachusetts in the early 1690s. See David Pickering, Dictionary of Witchcraft, London, 1996, pp. 230–236.

Giles Watson (October 2004)

Part Two: Ferns

Ophioglossum vulgatum

Buried among grasses, amid

Plantains, which I resemble,

You may find me, if you

Look hard, and are not fooled:

A fern whose frond does not unfold

Like filigree, but like the leaf

Of a flowering plant; armed

With a spike that is snake-like

To those unfamiliar

With the forked tongues of adders.

Notwithstanding, by sympathy I assuage

The serpent’s poison, and make a salve

For cows’ udders when inflamed,

Unblocking teats, mastitis clogged.

I am indicated, too,

For disorders of the tongue,

As a drink for wounds,

A balm for bruises,

A lotion for the weeping eye.

Follow the serpents to find me;

She who picks me, snakes pursue.

Source material. The doctrine of signatures, since it dictates that like cures like, has been used to advance the hypothesis that the Adder’s Tongue fern heals a range of maladies including snakebite, on the mistaken assumption that the plant resembles the tongue of a snake. In fact, it does not; it superficially resembles a plantain, with a leaf shaped like a rabbit’s ear, and the spore capsules mounted on a single spike. See Edward Step, Wayside and Woodland Ferns, London, 1945, pp. 101–105; Margaret Baker, Discovering the Folklore of Plants, pp. 58–59; Roy Vickery, Oxford Dictionary of Plant Lore, p. 1.

Giles Watson (October 2004)

Botrychium lunaria

Moonwort, bind and loosen metal,

Moonwort, open locks for me.

Mercury shall soon be silver,

Unshoed shall the horses be.

Near Tiverton, the Earl of Essex

Rode with horsemen o’er the down,

Moonwort clutched in moonlight pale,

Drawing out each farrier’s nail,

By fern and clod, each horse unshod

Before the riders reached the town.

The fertile part of moonwort’s frond

Poked through the keyhole stealthily—

Hear the latch click in the gloom,

Thus gain admittance to the room.

By fern and stealth, no guile nor wealth

Can buy a lock to hinder me.

From my retort the round flask hangs,

Quicksilver gleaming brilliantly.

Moonwort breaks the raised meniscus,

Watch the liquid grow more viscous.

With fern leaf warmed, ‘tis soon transformed

To silver, by my alchemy.

Source material. The story of the unshoeing of the Earl of Essex’s horses was first recorded by Culpepper: “On the White Down in Devonshire, near Tiverton, there was found thirty horse-shoes pulled off from the Feet of the Earl of Essex his Horses, being there drawn up into a body, many of them newly shod, and no reason known, which caused much admiration... and the herb usually grows upon Heaths.” See Richard Mabey, Flora Britannica, London, 1996, p. 14. If gathered by moonlight, moonwort is said to be capable of opening locks and loosening nails on hinges, and the alchemists believed that it had the power to convert mercury into silver. See Margaret Baker, Discovering the Folklore of Plants, p. 58. Culpepper recorded that the plant was colloquially known as “Unshoo the horse,” and it is known in West Cumberland as “Shoeless Horse”. See Edward Step, Wayside and Woodland Ferns, London, 1945, p. 107.

Giles Watson (October 2004)

Asplenium marinum

Mirrored in water

in the depth of the well

sea spleenworts

with sori oblique

fracture reflections

with fronded shadows.

Roots inextricable

from cracks

in stone.

Source material. The Sea Spleenwort, Asplenium marinum, flourishes on the west coast of England and Scotland. It commonly grows in sea caves, and is rarely very far removed from the ocean. The specimens which inspired this poem were inside St. Warna’s Well on St. Agnes in the Isles of Scilly. Edward Step, Wayside and Woodland Ferns, London. 1945, p. 48, observes: “This is a tantalizing plant to the fern collector, for so often it grows where it may be seen well, but where it is difficult to attainment even by a very good rock climber. This is just as well, for the roots are mostly left in the crevice when the rootstock has been secured, so that collected specimens are commonly doomed on this account.” It also tends not to thrive when removed from a maritime environment.

Giles Watson (October 2004)

Hymenophyllym tunbringense

Not rooting, exactly,

but clinging; not breathing

through stomates, but through

a membrane so permeable

that not a glint, not a sunbeam

must fall, without she wither,

she is all delicacy, hanging

limp from a tree’s root.

Quivering eternally

on the edge of desiccation,

viable only

where air and water

are in equal titre,

the filmy-fern

is oh so like a soul.

Source material. Tunbridge Filmy Ferns (Hymenophyllum tunbridgense) are lyrically described by Edward Step, Wayside and Woodland Ferns, pp. 23–25. He rightly points out that most illustrators (including Sowerby, used here) felt the obligation to depict each frond outspread, giving the fern an erect appearance. In fact, filmy-ferns invariably hang limp from the sides of rocks and the roots of trees.

Giles Watson (October 2004)

Ceterach officinarum

Wearing, in drought, the aspect

of Death, sinuous but withered,

you have chosen the desert places

in the dry stone wall.

One trickle is replenishment,

when the fronds curl back

from the rachis.


rustyback in the season

of generation. Leathered

for life in the days of dearth.

Source material. Ceterach officinarum, the Rusty-back Fern, is unlike other ferns in its preference for dry places. The sori are rust-coloured, and from this it derives its name. When deprived of water, it withers and appears dead, but soon revives after rain.

Giles Watson (October 2004)

Osmunda regalis

Osmund’s heart is white and cold

And buried under loam;

They come to dig it up at night

By the lantern’s glow,

And then they slice up Osmund’s heart

But nothing shall it bleed.

They pound it with a pestle stout

And let the juices seep.

Corked inside a bottle then

Osmund’s heart shall lie,

Though no one ever buried him,

And no one saw him die.

Soon he soothes the aching limb

When poured out from his urn,

Exhumed—before he beat his last—

From underneath a fern.

Source material. The Royal Fern (also known colloquially as the Flowering Fern on account of its fertile fronds, which are so dominated by their sori that the upper part of them looks similar to the flowers of the Dock) is known in Cumberland as the Marsh Onion, because of the whitish mass which grows within its rootstock. Folklore (documented in county Galway) has it that this “onion” is the “heart of Osmund”, which, when sliced, pounded and left to macerate, is said to be efficacious in cases of rheumatism. See Roy Vickery, Oxford Dictionary of Plant Lore, Oxford, 1995, p. 322; Edward Step, Wayside and Woodland Ferns, pp. 99–101.

Giles Watson (October 2004)

Pilularia globulifera

Here, in this plant, all is hidden

under the aspect of grass, or of rushes

newly grown. It takes a keen eye

to spot that leaf, uncurling

like a frond; nor are there sori,

but one must dig about,

in stagnant water at the root,

to find the spores, enclosed

in receptacles, peppercorn-tough,

where the mysteries of its sex

hide enciphered: and solitary

in her cell the megaspore waits—

her prothallium emerging pale—

hopes for the crypt to crack

beneath the thrust of antherozoids

who’ll strive, and swarm

and strain to make her green.

Source material. The Pillwort (Pilularia globulifera) does not carry sori on the leaves, but inside little capsules buried underwater with the rootstock. These are vaguely reminiscent of pills, but much more so of peppercorns. This plant is unlike the “true ferns” in that the megaspore produces a prothallium devoid of chlorophyll, and no antherids. Instead, each microspore produces an antherozoid, and these swarm at the funnel-shaped opening of the megaspore in order to fertilize the archegone. It seems that no other Cryptogam takes the name to such extremes.

Giles Watson (October 2004)

Phyllitis scolopendrium

The dry-stone wall is dripping

after rain, and campions hang

their pendulous heads, under

water droplets, that magnify

the many eyes of spiders making

loving gesticulations. Ivies

climb here, roots probing

like worms; green flowers

leave the air slick with nectar.

And spent rain falls in world-

reflecting globes, and in runnels,

down these dark and fleshy leaves,

as though they had been waxed.

No wonder the Namers always

call them tongues, whether of

harts or horses, foxes or lambs,

for the rain is now their slaver,

and the stone-crack’s leer

lets them out to lap

around the corners of the day,

to taste the rising humours

of the mould.

                     There is more flesh

here, than in many louder tongues.

Source material. The Hart’s Tongue Fern, Phyllitis scolopendrium, has a number of folk names which allude to its fleshy quality, including Hind’s Tongue, Fox Tongue, Lamb’s Tongue, Horse’s Tongue, and, in competition with another plant in this collection, Adder’s Tongue. It is also called the Seaweed Fern in Surrey on account of its resemblance to Laminaria. The Greeks were reminded of centipedes by the undersides of its fronds, with their parallel lines of sori; hence its specific name. See Edward Step, Wayside and Woodland Ferns, p. 60. On the Isles of Scilly they grow in profusion, sprouting both from the ground, and from cracks and crevices in rocks and walls.

Giles Watson (October 2004)

Part Three: Mosses

Sphagnum spp.


An early memory: the Sphagnum swamp

pockmarked with old tree stumps,

and punctuated by the gruff plonks

of pobblebonks mating. Each step

leaves the thuck of water oozing back

while brown frogs writhe inside the moss.

Tussocks slowly parted, safely,

with a stick. A black snake coils.

Locusts click singly in the heat.

Perhaps this explains, two decades later,

Why, walking among bog-moss

and navelworts, spiked by rushes,

near Burnham Beeches, where the ground

grows soggy—a hemisphere away—

I am longing for frogs and adders.


First, perhaps, an injured hind,

her fetlock grazed by a clattering stone,

made her way through the heath

and hoary bilberries, to the edge

of the blanket bog, and half-knelt there

with the bloodstain spreading through

moss already purpled.

                                   Later, at the battle

of Clonterf, the wounded, biting

on lead, stuffed their own gashes

with the whitened clumps of Sphagnum,

and at Flodden, with green bog-moss

and soft grass.

                      There has always been utility

in a simple that sucks up blood

more perfectly than dressings we can make.

From the hind’s graze to the shrapnel wound,

the virtue is the same.

Source material. The first poem is inspired by two encounters with Sphagnum bogs, one in the Brindabella mountains, A.C.T., Australia, in the early 1980s, and the other in 2003, at Burnham Beeches in Buckinghamshire. Pobblebonks are a startlingly vocal species of Australian frog, and their name is accurately onomatopoeic. The second poem alludes to the highly absorbent nature of Sphagnum. The leaves are filled with tiny tubes which suck up fluids by capillary action. The history of the use of Sphagnum as a surgical dressing is described in Mrs. Grieve’s A Modern Herbal, p. 553–4. It has been used for this purpose into modern times, and indeed, surgeons at the western front during the First World War soon realized that it was superior to cotton wool, because “A pad of Sphagnum moss absorbs the discharge in lateral directions, as well as immediately above the wound... [and] the wounds of our men at the front were of such a suppurating character as to require specially absorbent dressings...”

Giles Watson (October 2004)

Leucobryum glaucum

Split cases of beech nuts form a crust six inches thick,

the insides squirrel-gnawed, their curled spines turning

into mould. Crows claw the branches; buzzards clamour,

their nest at the centre of this wood. The distant chunter

of mallards, half-tamed for shooting. In the grass, a snare.

Cushions of Leucobryum, turquoise coloured and crisp,

quieten my tread to a dry crunching, hunched like the backs

of hedgehogs. Beside one, a dirty-grey skull—a weasel’s—

cleaved half-open. Cartridge cases encased in soil.

And though gunshots have defiled the sacred space,

And crows hang, inverted, from wires, by night

the Leucobryum gleams where moonlight catches it,

and the fox pads past, avoids the snare by habit

long established. Dew falls. Spore cases rise,

the calyptra hooked a little, like tiny Devil’s horns.

Source material. Leucobryum glaucum forms high-domed cushions on acid soils, and is capable of withstanding long dry spells. When dry it turns a turquoise colour, or even goes completely white. It rapidly revives when moistened. Fruiting such as that described in the poem is a comparatively rare occurrence; the plant more often reproduces through rhizoids which grow from the upper leaves and develop into small tufts which become detached and independent. See Arthur L. Jewell, The Observer’s Book of Mosses and Liverworts, London, 1955, p. 57. I lived for a year in Dropmore, near Burnham, in Buckinghamshire, and observed this moss regularly in the neighbouring Bristles Wood, which was unfortunately the domain of a particularly brutal gamekeeper at the time. Despite his depredations, a remarkable diversity of wildlife was to be observed within the wood, especially at night.

Giles Watson (October 2004)

Fontinalis antipyretica

... and where the fern’s tear dropped

into the stream that sprung from the stone,

it became part of the whole, swirling

from the mosses’ tresses, split

and rejoined, through the gills of a trout,

where the leafy island ended.

By the holes of voles and the heron’s bone,

with the stream-spun eddies curling,

echoes, waterborne, of the willows above,

where minnows swim, within, without,

are homes for flat-shelled snails.

And mingling in the whispering foam,

with the large-leaved bracts unfurling,

the water-moss, like faeries’ hair,

is weaving, flowing softly out.

And were I where the cold calves low,

or where the kettle sings me home,

where oatmeal mice are bobbing,

I’d seek where moss flows with the stream,

take flight, and slowly go about.

Source material. Fontinalis antipyretica is known colloquially as ‘Willow Moss’ on account of its flowing attitude. It normally grows submerged in water, where it reproduces by branching and detachment, but it can produce fruiting bodies when exposed to air. It characteristically has larger leaves at the ends of the bracts. This poem was written for Jeannie on her birthday, 10th October 2004, and in honour of William Butler Yeats, whose poem, ‘The Stolen Child’ written in 1886, is answered here.

Giles Watson (October 2004)

Part Four: Horsetails

Equisetum telemateia

Beside them, the skeleton of a dog, quite picked clean by crows.

The stems, too, are spent, a lattice of silica, thin silhouettes

against a shrouded winter sun. Everything is shades of beige,

the shadows a muted grey. Mirrored, too, are the skeleton’s

articulations, and instead of the skull, a catkin bends

sideways on a fractured column. The longbones and the stems

are hollow, the arching spines infinitely detachable.

There is nothing more; only the fog, the toil of egg-cells

germinating, and the damp sound of a dog panting.

Source material. The Great Horsetail, Equisetum telemateia, is the largest of the British horsetails, the infertile fronds growing to a height of six feet or more. The poem was inspired by a remembered scene near Coomes Wood in Oxfordshire, where a large stand of Great Horsetails was observed beside a ditch in around 2000.

Giles Watson (October 2004)

Equisetum hyemale

The Pewterwort that polished

his pint pot, the Scouring Rush

that left the cabinet smooth

to a lady’s touch, and finished

the work of the fletcher, gave

the combmaker’s craft

its delicacy, and lent each tooth

perfection, feeds horses well,

they say.

              But cows lose molars

altogether, by chewing it,

and it scours them within

cleaner than a milkmaid’s pail.

Source material. All Horsetails have large quantities of silica deposited in their stems, but none more so than the so-called Dutch Rush, Equisetum hyemale, which has in the past acquired some commercial value as a natural scourer. It has been imported to Britain from Holland for this purpose, hence its common name (other folk names for it are mentioned in the poem). Linneus testified to the fact that the plant was a staple food for horses in Sweden, but maintained that cows lost their teeth to it, and that it gave them diarrhoea. See Mrs M. Grieve, A Modern Herbal (1931), Revised Edition, Surrey, 1973, p. 420.

Giles Watson (October 2004)

Part Five: Club Mosses

Isoetes lacustris

Merlin’s Grass: for who else would look for quills

on the floors of lakes below Yr Wyddfa? Perhaps

he sought them, with his sleeves rolled up, kneeling

on his floating islands, on Nadroedd, Coch or Glas,

and single-eyed fishes viewed his arm, lopsidedly,

as his white fingers groped in sludge, plucking up

the spiked rosettes, shaking their rootstocks free

in a cloud of underwater spores.

                                                   Was it these, I wonder,

which silvered his arm, so that with the plunge

it went in wrinkled, but came out like a child’s?

Source material. The Common Quillwort, Isoetes lacustris, is also colloquially known as Merlin’s Grass. It grows at the bottom of mountain lakes, in the Scottish Highlands and in North Wales. The one-eyed fishes, the floating islands, and the rejuvenating quality of the Snowdonian waters are characteristically picturesque inventions of the twelfth century churchman Gerald of Wales, from his Journey Through Wales, Chapter 9. A more recent Quillwort hunter was the French botanist J. Gay, who visited the Snowdonian lakes “and obtained ‘Úchantillons’ of quillwort from the vast majority” of them (F.J. North, Bruce Campbell and Richenda Scott, Snowdonia: the National Park of North Wales, London, 1949, p. 169).

Giles Watson (October 2004)

Lycopodium spp.

Scaled down since the Carboniferous; imagine

this club-moss was tree-high, its dichotomous

forking roots covered with round scars.

Around the tree there is generation, and decay

in all its stages: clouds of spores at its height,

and by its feet, the smashed stems of horsetails.

Great winds hurl the fronds of tree ferns

against the flexing trunk, and only amphibians

will hear it when it falls.

                                       Take out a hand-lens:

with a toad’s eye view, all shall be restored.

Source material. See Rhona M. Black, The Elements of Palaeontology, 1970, pp. 306–7. Lycopods reached their acme during the Carboniferous period, when they achieved tree-like proportions. Casts of their enormous fossilized stumps can still be seen at Victoria Park in Glasgow.

Giles Watson (October 2004)