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

34 Replies to “A Plant With Structure And A Woodland Mystery”

  1. Eww. I didn’t notice until you pointed the spider out. How disappointing that Google failed you. We do sort of rely on that don’t we? I ended up looking up this plant. It’s not native to your area is it? and does the pod actually open up to reveal berry-looking items?

  2. Beth Chatto’s nursery online site is fantastic for looking up plants and yes, Paris polyphylla is there (though sold out) for the princely sum of £5.95 I think. Thanks for showing us this plant as I don’t believe I have seen one before. It definitely has structure.

  3. Fear of ticks will keep me out of the woods on the summer. That is a cool plant. Have you ever tried a reverse image search? Sometimes not any better than Googleing stringy things 😊🙃

    1. I didn’t think of that – something to try next time. There are various plant identification apps too.

      I’ve walked in a lot of English woods and have had the odd flying insect bite and one bee sting but never a tick – so far at least.

      1. I didn’t know there was an app for that, although I’m not surprised. 😊

        Lyme disease, carried by some ticks, is such a problem in my county, that doctors specialize in it and there is a county commission to address the problem and educate people. Some parks have warning signs with a huge tick pictured on it. I grew up in a different state, where we hiked and backpacked and never gave ticks a second thought.

    1. It makes me wonder how many taken from the wild to plant in gardens actually made it. It is either not a common plant where I live or I have been neglecting to look as well as I ought to!

    1. I’m glad – as I was writing it and adding the pictures, which all looked very green and leafy, I was thinking ‘I wonder if anyone else will find this as attractive as I do?’

  4. I don’t have your botanical eye, so I’m not sure I would be examining this plant unless I knew to look for the “parasol-within-a-parasol” or “long stringy things.” My idea of scientific nomenclature. I congratulate you on your aha moment, complete with happy dance (something like my old lady’s jig, I suspect, though with more aplomb). The more we know about plants, the more we have to guard them. I agree it seems like a no-brainer.

    1. I imagine our happy dances are much the same, although I dance with more cheerfulness than aplomb. I’ve never been good at organised dancing – strangers often kindly urge me to ‘Keep trying’ when I leave the dance floor.

      1. Forgive my laughter, but that’s hilarious. Seems to me that, unless one is in Swan Lake, cheerfulness is the point of dancing. Or maybe just keeping one’s self from spectacle.

  5. What a fascinating plant! I loved your photos and will have to keep an eye out for it over here!

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