Happy Conrad Gesner Day! Who is he, you may ask? And why does he have a day? Conrad Gesner (sometimes spelled Konrad Gessner) was a Swiss naturalist and polymath, born on this day (26th March) in 1516; he lived much of his life in Zurich, where he died on 13 December 1565. Gesner was an extremely important figure in Renaissance science and scholarship, and when I visited Zurich in 2008 to give a seminar at the university, a tour of the old town revealed a number of references to the great man, including the memorial stone above.
Gesner’s Historia animalium (“History of Animals”) is considered one of the founding texts of modern zoology, and for that reason he is memorialised in the name Gesneria Hübner, 1825; this is a genus of moths in the family Crambidae.
However Gesner was also a botanist and wrote a couple of books on the subject, though his Historia plantarum was not published until two centuries after his death. To celebrate Gesner’s botanical achievements Linnaeus erected the genus Gesneria L. for a group of flowering plants. Sounds odd to have the same name for two very different types of organism, but this cross-kingdom duplication of genera is allowable under the various codes of taxonomic nomenclature.
Gesneria in turn is the type genus for the family Gesneriaceae. It’s quite a big family (about 3,450 species in 152 genera) and is ecologically important in the tropics and subtropics, where species may be pollinated by insects and birds, and are often epiphytic on trees. It’s not a particularly economically important family, though a number of genera are widely grown as ornamentals, and there are specialist gesneriad growers and collectors. The more familiar plants include those mainstays of Mothering Sunday (which by coincidence is also today) African Violets (Saintpaulia), Cape Primroses (Streptocarpus) and gloxinias (Gloxinia):
As I was looking through my photographs from the trip to Zurich in 2008 I spotted the following image of some wrought ironwork from the old city which may well be contemporary with Gesner. This seems a fitting way to celebrate both the great man and this week’s Spiral Sunday:
Happy Birthday Dr Gesner!
Although it is technically a non-native species, as it was almost certainly brought to Britain by the Romans, Helix pomatia (the edible or Roman snail) is nonetheless protected by the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981), and in England it is an offence to sell, collect, kill or injure this species. That’s an unusual situation for an alien animal or plant in this country, and I’m struggling to think of another example – are there any?
Regardless of its status, the large shells of the Roman snail (several times bigger than the common garden snail Cornu aspersum when fully grown) form a beautiful spiral for today’s Spiral Sunday posting.
Thanks to Dr Tim Astrop for allowing me to photograph this dead specimen.
On 12th February 1809 Mr Charles Robert Darwin was born, so I couldn’t let this week’s Spiral Sunday pass without wishing the great man Happy Birthday! I used Festisite to make the spiral text and then played around with an image of Darwin using PowerPoint; nothing too fancy, but I think it’s effective.
Have a great #DarwinDay everyone!
Yesterday we took down the Christmas decorations that have festooned the house this year. Whilst I was taking apart the wreath we’d hung on the door I noticed for the first time that the bow had a lovely spiral design. I thought it would make a nice Spiral Sunday for this year, and we’ll re-use it next year.
More on that wreath later in the week….
Spiral Sunday today shows a detail from a cast iron bridge that I photographed recently in Bristol. As far as I can gather the bridge commemorates the local rope making industry, which was vital for the shipping that used this port. To make ropes like this you twist the fibres, forming a helix; which is, of course, a long spiral. Right?
This week’s Spiral Sunday post features a couple of shots I took today in Milton Keynes where we spent a tiring day Christmas shopping. One of the outdoor stalls is selling a traditional baked sweet pastry from Transylvania, the name of which they have Anglicised to “Spiralicious”. It’s made with a very neat spiral-shaped dough cutter, which was just begging to be photographed.
To celebrate number ten in my series I thought I would fulfil a promise that I made in Spiral Sunday #1 to tell the story behind the main image of a blue spiral that adorns this blog.
In 2008 I was leading a group of students on a walk in the Anaga region of Tenerife during our annual undergraduate field course to the island. We were hiking through laurel forest along the trails from the restaurant at Cruz del Carmen, looking at the forest and cliff vegetation community structure. During our lunch break I set off alone down a side trail and came across a shallow recess, a sort of low natural grotto, in the vertical bank that defined one side of the track.
The walls of the grotto were green with lichen which made a vivid backdrop to what appeared to be a small shrine consisting of branches, including one set upright that looked like a human figure with arms raised, or could it represent a crucifix? Around this were scattered coloured pencils (to the right on the main image) and pieces of paper with writing on them, possibly prayers (on the left).
Most striking of all was a drawing of a blue spiral, its colours smudged and faded with the humidity, but still a conspicuous contrast to the lichen. I took a few photographs, being careful not to disturb the display, then headed back to catch up with the students.
There is a strong local sense of traditional, pre-Spanish identity in this part of Tenerife and it is well known for its local stories such as the “Witches of Anaga“, and it’s possible that this shrine relates to local ritualistic practices. The spiral is a traditional design used by the original Guanche inhabitants of the Canary Islands and still regularly found on logos, pottery, etc. Alternatively what I discovered could have been just kids playing in the forest, though that seems unlikely as it’s off the beaten track and not close to any villages.
I’ve occasionally found other ritualistic items on the island (e.g. a child’s doll wrapped in cloth, with folded paper in the bindings) but the Anaga spiral shrine was a particualrly striking discovery. When we returned with the field course the following year the spiral had disintegrated but the rest of the shrine had been tidied up and more neatly arranged (see lower photograph). I wonder if it’s still there?
This week’s Spiral Sunday features a shot I took of a slate-clad wall on the David Attenborough Building during a recent visit to Cambridge. I really like the way the artists Ackroyd & Harvey have incorporated the square elements into this Fibonacci Spiral by changing the orientation of the pieces of slate. It’s a stunning piece of work that my photograph doesn’t really do justice.
This week’s Spiral Sunday post is appearing rather later than usual as we’ve just got back from a weekend trip to Lancaster to see my son Patrick. It was nice to be back in the north and in the homeland of my paternal grandfather’s family: my father’s family hailed originally from Lancashire before his father migrated to the north east in about 1900.
At the top of the street where Patrick’s house is located is a building that used to belong to a local Co-Operative Society store, a fine organisation with its roots in Lancashire. Above the doorway is a beautiful stone carving of a skep, a traditional honey bee hive made by coiling straw in a spiral to form a dome shape, and the traditional symbol of the Co-Operative Society. The spiral is not obvious from this, so you’ll just have to trust me!
Oxford Botanic Garden is a very special place and one that holds an important position in my personal journey as a scientist and teacher (see, for instance, these old posts: The Walls of the Garden and A giant falls: the Tolkien tree is no more).
Some years ago the Garden refurbished its Fernery (a glasshouse devoted to humidity-loving ferns and their relatives) and as part of the design installed a stone floor centered on an old outlet both aesthetically and topographically – the floor level slopes inwards from all sides to allow water to flow into the drain. It’s a nice confluence of design and practicality using, of course, a spiral.
That’s the seventh in my Spiral Sunday series; more next week.