A Plant With Structure And A Woodland Mystery

Paris polyphylla

It’s hard to explain the allure of woodland plants to those who are not susceptible to their charms. I can never resist poking around in a shaded area when I visit a new garden, looking to see what spring ephemerals I missed out on when they were in flower and making a mental promise to come back next year – or at least one year. And so it was at Beth Chatto’s famous garden this weekend. 

Swathes of geranium, epimedium and hellebore leaves indicated rich pickings. One plant, growing close to some Mayapples, puzzled me. I can often recognize shade plants by their leaves, but the more I looked at this one, the more puzzled I was. It seemed familiar, reminding me of several other woodland plants – a multi-leafed trillium, or a different type of bunchberry (Cornus canadensis) – but what was it? The whole plant seemed to be modeling itself on a passionflower.

I counted the leaves and appendages and noted that the number varied from plant to plant.

Paris with seed capsule

The symmetry was striking – this plant had structure in layers. Two whorls of leaves (or leaf-like structures) held apart on a single stem, created a decorative, parasol-within-a-parasol effect. There was evidence of a single flower that had gone to seed. Long, stringy things formed one circular ring around the seed capsule and the remnants of shorter, darker stamens, another.

Back at home, I pestered my sweetheart to look at my pictures and give me the technical terms for the parts of the plant to help me Google it. What were the stringy things? You can hardly search for ‘woodland plant with two whorls of green leaves and long stringy things’, can you? Well, you can, because I did it, but you’ll not get very far.

He suggested the term ‘filaments’, and further advised that I e-mail Beth Chatto’s specialist plant advice team to see if they could identify it. I was sitting down to do just that when a name mysteriously conjured itself up from those distant days when I used to pour over plant catalogues for entertainment. It was an aha moment – this was some form of Paris (cue a happy dance).

I think it is Paris polyphylla, though I stand to be corrected. Those long filaments are slender petals, that were yellowish in their glory and are still clinging resolutely to the plant.

Paris plants in late summer

Paris polyphylla is a valuable medicinal plant though, like many plants, is potentially poisonous to those who are not familiar with its actions on the body. It is increasingly endangered in the wild due to construction projects and collectors who don’t know how to manage it sustainably (or aren’t invested enough in their surroundings to care).

The plant has a few foibles that work against it too. The rhizomes need humus-rich soil and don’t adapt well to conditions outside their comfort zone. Plants are slow to multiply and have a tendency not to produce viable seeds. Germination isn’t particularly quick either.

I can understand that a green leafy plant might not excite everyone, but for me, it’s a fascinating plant, not dependent on flashiness for its allure. And sadly, it’s a representative of the great plant accident most gardeners can sense approaching. I’d love to see Paris polyphylla when the flowers are fresh but, more importantly, I hope people alive in 2117 or 2217 will have the same opportunity.

I wonder how many plant nurseries are quietly working alongside pharmaceutical companies to preserve and experiment with new cultivars of plants that have therapeutic value. It seems like a no-brainer, doesn’t it?

Paris with spider
The spider-like Paris polyphylla with seed capsule makes a great hiding place for a real spider (its body and legs are just visible to the left of the seed capsule).

American Journal of Plant Sciences

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