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Wild Things Diary: 4 Feb. 2013

by Dr Trevor Dines

Filming the passionflower © Trevor Dines.


It’s hot in the city, hot in the city tonight…

We’re on a hunt. Our prey comes from Brazil and is the largest of its kind known to be at large in London. Wild and rampant, it should have been an easy target to track down. But after two hours of searching in the searing mid-day heat, we seem to have lost it. Without it, one of the main stories for this episode will be impossible to tell.

London was a great programme to shoot. For some reason, the idea of doing a wildlife programme from the centre of our capital brought a real buzz to the filming. We were doing something decidedly different, filming unexpected and unknown wildlife, but the stories we were telling had the potential to appeal to the millions of people that make London their home. It was this juxtaposition, our normal everyday activities looking for plants and lichens but in completely unexpected locations, that made the shoot so rewarding. But it also had its challenges.

Back to the hunt. I’m in Plumstead, south London, with our Director, Aneurin Thomas. We have a scrap of paper with some precise directions and even a 6-figure grid reference. This indicates where we’ll find the largest known wild Blue Passionflower in London. “On the north side of the cycle path 20 meters before the massive wild grape vine” it reads. I’ve collected and grown passionflowers all my life. From the Blue Passionflower I grew as a child on a sunny wall of our house, to subtropical Banana Passionflowers I grew in the laboratory when at university, to the tropical Winged Passionflowers I grow in the conservatory at home today. But I’ve never seen one growing in the wild in Britain. I’m unreasonably excited by the prospect of finding it. My GPS tells us we’re at the precise spot and we’ve already found the wild grape vine, but the passionflower seems to have disappeared. Along with our story.

Aneurin and I walk back along the track towards the local train station utterly dejected. There’s no feeling quite like seeing a great story disappear before your eyes, weeks of research wasted. We cannot find the passionflower. We’ve even phoned the chap that found it originally to check we’re in the right place. We are, but it’s not to be seen. Suddenly, when we’re near the end of the track, I hear a cry from Aneurin, “what’s that over there?”. The non-botanist has spotted it! We’d walked right past the huge plant in the rush to get to the “right” spot further down the track.

It really is an astonishing sight; the sub-tropical climber looks so exotic and out of place. With giant grape vines, fennel and Virginia creeper rampaging nearby, though, the whole site has the air of the famous Cantina bar scene in Star Wars, full of strange aliens jostling together. Our passionflower is on very steep bank, making filming difficult, and not many flowers are open. As we set up to film though, the warm sunshine works it magic and huge flower buds literally start popping open around us. The petals spread wide before our very eyes and the fresh blooms are immediately besieged by bees, eager to feast on the nectar hidden deep within the flowers.

Not all the footage we shoot gets into the final programme. The scrip isn’t fixed at the time of filming and constantly evolves, so we have to cover all possible elements of the story while on location. In a long piece-to-camera, I describe how the Passionflower got its name. The first missionaries to Brazil were so astonished with the beauty and structure of the flower, they were sure it was a direct sign to them from God. This was taken literally, as the actual embodiment of the crucifixion. The three stigmas came to represent the three nails used to secure Christ to the cross, the five anthers the five wounds (one nail in each hand and foot, plus the wound from the lance), the ring of filaments in the flower represent the crown of thorns and the ten petals the ten ‘faithful’ apostles (excluding St. Peter the denier and Judas Iscariot the betrayer). The flower portrayed perfectly the story of the passion, hence Passionflower. As lovely as this story is though, there’s no room for it in the final programme and it’s not included.

Another big challenge comes with Chris’ loquat story. These exotic fruits, rather like apricots, are especially popular with the Turkish community in London. It’s in these areas that they’re now beginning to appear; the fruit are eaten and the large seeds are discarded on path sides, from which the glossy-leaved shrubs grow. The trouble is, it’s not loquat season in Britain. There are no fruits to be seen anywhere. The largest wholesale fruit suppliers in London can’t produce any. So we go to Brazil. Or rather, an order is placed with a Brazilian supplier and a box of ripe loquats is shipped by sea all the way to Heathrow. Having arrived in Britain, it’s then lost. They’re never found, so a new box is shipped over and eventually, a few weeks later, Chris is able to film his piece with real loquats.

With the urban heat effect warming London up, plants like passionflower, loquat and others are beginning to take a hold. All around us we spot tree-of-heaven, a large shrub from China that relishes the warmth of the capital. It’s becoming a serious problem, suckering madly to form dense colonies; it’s so bad that in some parts of the world it’s now called tree-of-hell. In the control of invasive species the priority is now spotting these new arrivals, the ones that might go on to wreak havoc if the problem isn’t nipped in the bud. For more information read our report. It’s unlikely that passionflower will fall into this category though. For now, it’s a fascinating and truly exotic addition to our flora, another wild thing to go searching for. Just make sure you have the right directions before you set off.

Lichen it.

Lichens are difficult organisms to sell; that’s why they don’t usually appear on wildlife programmes. Sally is probably the first professional lichenologist to appear on primetime TV. Her challenge is to bring the tiny, crusty, grey and trodden-on world she studies to life. In this case, they’re literally trodden-on. In one of my favourite sequences in the whole series, Sally lies prostrate, face down and motionless on a Westminster pavement, surrounded by bustling commuters on their way to work. The looks she gets as they pass by are priceless. Unknown to them, she’s studying chewing gum lichen, Lecanora muralis, which splatters the paving slabs all over the place. It’s an incredible tenacious life that goes completely unnoticed. But not any more. For other lichens to spot now - and some mosses and fungi too - click here.