Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Fictional botany: Diabarbus polytrichius

Sheepwhistle (Diabarbus polytrichius) is a small (to 6 in / 15 cm) herbaceous plant native to damp inland areas of northern and eastern portions of Europe. It has cordate green leaves with a prominent white midvein, and produces panicles of small, pink, star-shaped flowers with a lily-of-the-valley-like fragrance in April and May.

The common name derives from its seeds, which are studded with long, stiff hairs: animals eating the plant find the seeds sticking in their throats, causing a buzzing or whistling noise when they breathe. The seeds remain until the bristles and seed case have absorbed enough moisture to germinate, at which point the bristles soften and seeds are coughed up by the animal, then germinate almost immediately where they land.

It is occasionally grown as an ornamental, and has escaped cultivation and become naturalized in much of North America. "'Ere the Sheep Whistle" was a minor folk song in England during the 1700s, about a soldier promising to return home to his love before the summer. Shakespeare also mentions "the flocks a-bed, to whistle through the eve / wee nightingales whose beaks are cloth'd in wool" in King Lear.

-from A Field Guide to Imaginary Plants (Mr. Subjunctive, ed.)


This sort of thing is actually a good bit more difficult than it looks, and I don't know that fictional botany is going to be a regular feature of the blog (especially since I can't include pictures with the posts), but there may be some imaginary plants popping up from time to time, if I can come up with field-guide-type descriptions. Especially if I get to write fake Shakespeare every time. (Iambic pentameter RULEZ!)


Melissa Gay Art said...

This is extremely cool! I could write a pseudo-Irish folk song about sheep-whistle!

Anonymous said...

Brilliant! :-) I love the germination process. Hee!

MrBrownThumb said...


You could do it old school and include your sketches of these imaginary plants.

Anonymous said...

Didn't The Museum of Jurassic Technology have an exhibit on this?