Nature 2021 June

Taking some poetic licence with Speedwell and Liberty Caps

In contrast to the fertile fields of Aylesbury Vale, the fields up in the Chiltern Hills may not be considered to contain the most fertile of soils.

In Ancient Greece, to overcome this deficit, farmers would have turned to Demeter, the Goddess of fertility and agriculture. She was frequently depicted on coins adorned with wild flowers, fruits and grains. Under the Roman Empire Berenice, the Greek high priestess who tended the altar of Demeter became known as Veronica. Christianised in the first century, the Saint’s name was later selected by Swedish taxonomist Carl Linnaeus for the genus of a group of wild flowers also known as ‘God’s Speed’. This includes the Common Speedwell: a flower typically found at the time in Asia and Eastern Europe, which flourishes on the margins of cultivated land. It first arrived in the Chilterns from the Caucasian Mountains in the 18th century.

Born in 18th century Devon, the English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge was the youngest of ten children. He met fellow poet William Wordsworth in 1795 whilst living in Somerset and the collaboration that ensued was the foundation of the English Romantic Movement.

One of Coleridge’s first poems originating from this association was The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. The ballad recounts the story of an old mariner whose ship is caught up in a violent storm. Driven south into the icy waters on the Antarctic the sailors become disorientated as fog cloaks the icebergs. The icy wastes seem lifeless until an Albatross appears which raises the sailors’ morale. For an unexplained reason the mariner suddenly kills the Albatross with a crossbow. Though the perilous circumstances of the sailors initially improves, this is short-lived and, as captured in Coleridge’s immortal words “Water, water, every where, Nor any drop to drink”, the sailors succumb one-by-one and those remaining blame the old mariner for their desperate plight and he reports “…the Albatross, About my neck was hung.”

The account of the Albatross is one supposedly told to Coleridge by Wordsworth who had recently read George Shelvocke’s biographical Voyage Round the World by way of the Great South Sea. This was an account of the Second-in-Command of a Privateer who shot an Albatross in 1719 off the coast of Terra del Fuego. The crew were subsequently marooned and the death of the Albatross was linked to their fate. The ship was HMS Speedwell – God’s Speed being a valediction used for those departing on a journey.

The oldest confirmed fungal fossil is dated at about 800 million years old though fungal-like fossils have been dated from 2.4 billion years ago. Until the second half of 20th century fungi were seen as a primitive branch of plants and it was only in the late 1960s that they were classified as a completely distinct kingdom of life. In fact fungi are now considered more closely related to animals than plants, having only split away from the animal part of the tree of life around a billion years ago. We live in a world dependent on fungi, although for most of the time they remain largely unnoticed. Occasionally, they make themselves known through the appearance of their fruiting bodies, be it a mushroom in a field or bracket attached to a tree. Turning over a stone, digging under the roots of a tree, or ladling up water from a pond will reveal fungi. Breath in and you will inhale spores.

Our survival from early times has relied on making use of fungi for food, be it in brewing, baking bread or fermenting cheese and yoghurt. In medicine we rely on fungi for the chemical processes to produce medicines.

The mycelia of fungi aerate soils, permitting water take up. Fungi are known as primary decomposers because they are at the start of the process of cleaning up dead and dying trees and plants, animals and their waste products. They are essential as they can break down chemical structures unreachable by other means. Without them entire ecosystems would cease to exist or survive.

Though providing this fundamental role, fungi have retained a position in the web of life exemplifying the interconnectedness and interdependence of all life. Our own bodies and health rely on unimaginable diverse communities of microscopic organisms, known as our mycobiome. A frightening statistic calculated by scientists is that only 43 per cent of the cells that make up our bodies are actually ‘human’. The rest are mainly bacterial microbes but also fungi, mainly in your gut. As one eminent scientist once said, “Your body isn’t just you.”

Some fungi have become associated with political movements, ancient and modern. One example is the Liberty Cap, found in grassland areas, such as sheep and cattle pastures and, these days, on golf courses. It got its name in the early nineteenth century due to its distinctive appearance.

The Cap of Liberty or Phrygian Cap was a peaked felt bonnet worn by liberated slaves in the Roman Empire. During the 17th and 18th centuries the Phrygian Cap became an icon of political freedom worn by those associated with the revolutionary movements of France and the American Colonies. To quote: “… a common fungus which so accurately represents the pole and cap of Liberty that it seems offered by Nature herself as the appropriate emblem of Gallic republicanism.”

The pole was used to hoist the caps of those campaigning for liberty in Roman times and again during the War of Independence and French Revolution. The person quoted above in 1812 was also behind the name ‘Liberty Cap’ being adopted by 19th century mycologists. He was Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who had also shown republican sympathies for the 18th century revolutionists.

PS. In the 1950s this same mushroom gained notoriety as the first source for the chemical formulation that is today known as the hallucinogenic drug LSD. But that’s another story!

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