Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Vegetable Leather

I've mentioned the grotesque Gunnera manicata (or Giant Martian Brazilian Rhubarb) before. They grow all along the stream running through the University campus.  Once upon a time, someone must have thought it was a good idea.  They probably looked great in some plantsman's catalogue of Exciting New Invasive Species.

The first time you see them, they are quite amusing and/or gobsmacking, in a triffid-ish kind of way.  The leaves grow to be four to five feet across (120-150cm), and are held up by rhubarb-like stalks covered in spines straight out of the Special Effects Department.  They look like their sap must surely etch glass, or hospitalize anyone foolish enough to attack them with a machete.

As the year progresses into winter, however, the stalks lose their rigidity and kink under their burden like bent drinking straws, and the massive leaves collapse onto the ground to rot.  I believe the gardeners accelerate the process by snapping the plants over at the end of the season.  I presume they wear chain-mail gauntlets and full bio-hazard suits.

As the leaves appear to be made out of the vegetable equivalent of leather, however, they take forever to rot down.  By December and January, nothing looks deader than a dead Gunnera leaf.




But they're just hiding underground and, like all the best unkillable alien zombies -- they'll be back!

I've been photographing them for years.  A decade or so ago, the University asked me if I would give them a selection of images so they could choose one for the official Christmas card.  As it happened, the previous year it had snowed, and I had a truly magnificent shot of rotting gunnera covered in snow, down by a bit of the stream where the banks and the water run an interesting irridescent orange colour because of the unique combination of brick clay and bacterial pollution that occurs there.  It was clearly The One.

To my amazement, the PR people rejected it, and instead went for a dull shot of some snow-covered apples, that I'd slipped in as a makeweight.  Asked why, they explained -- in that patient, cautious tone you use with potentially dangerous lunatics -- that the picture of those things down by the stream was not really in the intended seasonal spirit, and yes, despite all the snow.

Ah.  I think it was around then that I realised that, in certain crucial senses, I was never going to be entirely normal in my aesthetic responses, and might as well make a virtue out of it.  Amazingly, the PR people haven't yet asked me for any more festive photos.  Their loss, I think.


eeyorn said...

The inspiration for John Wyndham's wee beastie was the Giant Hogweed, another specimen from the Exciting New Invasive Species catalogue. Those Victorian plant collectors have a lot to answer for.

As the University doesn't seem to appreciate your art, maybe you should launch your own range of Seasonal cards?

Mike C. said...


Well, I do, most years, but in small numbers, plus a calendar in even smaller numbers. I recommend VistaPrint, a firm which looks like a scam but isn't.


Anonymous said...

'Mike C of Southampton says: "I recommend VistaPrint, a firm which looks like a scam but isn't."'

Can't see them using THAT in their promotional material.


Mike C. said...


Oh, I don't know... It might be as infernally catchy as "does what it says on the tin"...