White bryony, a hedgerow scrambler

White Bryony’s lighter green leaves and long tendrils help the plant to be spotted in a hedgerow. (When there isn’t a chalk marker to help!)

I wrote some more flower names in chalk along Newmarket Rd, encouraged by comments from people who have said how this cheers their walks. As I did so a couple walking their dog pointed out white bryony to me in the hedge. I duly chalked its name on the pavement. I then decided to make this scrambling plant my species for today. I thought I would be able to write about it quickly and get started on the piles of papers that are waiting for me to sort. Instead I have been absorbed discovering more about this plant and the piles remain untouched!

The male hedgerow plant in Newmarket Road.

What do you think of this plant? I’ve taken little notice of it before, except as a nuisance in our garden as with its vigorous growth it swamps other plants. Now I know more, I will pay it more respect. For first I discovered that white bryony is our only native plant from the gourd family – to which cucumbers belong. Though my attempts to grow cucumber have failed, I recognise the similarity of the leaves, flowers and tendrils. However, there is an important difference: white bryony is poisonous – its roots and berries were used in mediaeval times to scourge people of infection in a way not to be recommended!

Rather cheesily, I also discovered that chalking its name is appropriate as, like wild mignonette that I wrote about yesterday, white bryony likes chalky soil.

A bee feeds on the flower of a male white bryony plant. Note the long tendrils which enable the plant to scramble over other plants.

I have known white bryony’s yellow-greenish flowers for some time, but I had not realised that each plant is male or female, or that the male flowers are comparatively much larger. The one I had found in the hedgerow was male. In our garden I found first another male, intertwined with a honeysuckle, then I found a female plant in a bit of hedge.

White bryony’s female flower is much smaller than the male flower (right). The split anthers of the male flower, exposing yellow pollen grains, are clearly visible.

Looking through a hand lens and a microscope. I could see how the male anthers, the plant’s male sexual organs, have split to expose multiple yellow pollen grains. This pollen is ready for a visiting bee to pick up on its legs (and body), and carry to a female plant. Looking closely, I saw how the centre of the female plant, at the base of its sexual organs, the stigmas, is packed with hairs, to make sure that as a bee visits, the pollen that it carries is brushed off onto the female sexual organs, so achieving fertilisation.

Fertilised female flowers develop berries, which will later turn red.

The result – female plants bear berries, which are green at first, turning red in autumn.

In today’s sunshine that was hot work! So my next post will be about something cooler: using the flowers from elder bushes to make elderflower cordial, a perfect drink for a summer’s day…

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