The power of the wood-wide web to alter garden design

When I started to design the front garden, I had in mind large clipped cushions of green and grey — lavender and teucrium — in a meadow-like space enclosed by existing dry stonewalls and limestone outcroppings. There is already one large mound of lavender at one end of the dry stonewall, and the new plants would take perhaps 3-5 years to reach the same size to be clipped similarly. So when I received the unexpected largesse that included countless lavenders and teucriums, I already knew where they would go, and I dug some shallow holes to indicate where M could dig deeper. But when I examined the holes the following morning — they were speckled with mycelium — the fungal web that connects plant roots with fungi and other microorganisms in the soil. Mycologist Paul Stamets calls this natural model for the internet — a wood-wide web (read more on the function of this underground global symbiotic web here).

I also noticed numerous baby bulbs with incipient roots and leaves — all had lain waiting underground for just the right conditions to break through to the surface. And each bulb was similarly speckled whitish grey with what I took to be fungal mycelium as well. Right where I had planned as the perfect spot for bushes of Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia), where their plumes of pale blue flowers fading to purple would have caught the light of the setting sun, appeared tiny pink starry flowers on spikes. These I took to be orchids. They seemed to have flushed overnight, together with wands of the white spiral orchids, also known as autumn lady’s tresses (Spiranthes spiralis), about which I wrote in a previous post. I had assumed the spiral orchids could only flourish in a part of the garden shaded from the hot sun by pine trees, and so I was astounded to find them in great numbers in the dry meadow. According to the literature, spiral orchids are an indicator of a perfect amount of soil moisture – neither too wet nor too dry. Now I’ve been seeing these white spiral orchids everywhere –- even in those areas of the garden too dry to sustain even drought-tolerant thyme during the summer.

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Autumn squill (Scilla autumnalis or Prospero autumnale), growing among marguerites and various bulbs.

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Early mornings as I walk about the garden when the sun is just beginning to filter through the tall pines and to pierce through the soft mist surrounding the tiny spiral orchids and their delicate, equally tiny, pink companions in the dry meadow, I imagine how fairies and elves would have favoured such an enchanting space. Sheltered by the rocks and the gnarled trunks of olive trees from human eyes, they would be able to dance and sing freely, merrily skipping and flitting from orchid to orchid, from the white spiral wands to the pink starry spikes and back again, over and over.

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Spiranthes spiralis orchids like countless fairy wands among the sprouting grass

Then of course it dawned on me. These autumn dainties and more to come later are dependent on their sustained survival through the searing summer on that fragile mass of fungal webbing that envelops every bulb and root that I had turned up while digging. Each of these wildflowers holds a link that keeps this fragile ecosystem alive through summer drought. I quickly covered up the holes that I had dug, and whispered apologies in my mind. M made me feel better by saying that nature always provides redundant pathways and that the broken links should soon recover.

As for those pink starry spikes that I had taken for orchids, well, they’re not listed among Spain’s endemic orchids. I finally found a picture of them among autumn-blooming geophytes (bulbs) in the Greek island of Crete, and later confirmed that they are also found in Villalonga (click here for a listing of the flora of Villalonga). These pink-, sometimes blue-, flowered bulbs found throughout the Mediterranean and also, although rarely, in southeastern England, are called autumn squill (Scilla autumnalis, synonymously Prospero autumnale). This latter name fits my image of them as fairy flowers (remembering the sorcerer Prospero in Shakespeare’s The Tempest). I do hope these delicate autumn squills spread throughout this enchanted meadow and elsewhere in the garden. There are single spikes elsewhere, often growing close to a group of white spiral orchids.

As for the future mounded and clipped lavenders and teucriums in my original garden design, they’ve now been planted along the gravel driveway, where no orchid or bulb is growing at the moment. It’s an ideal spot for purslane (Portulaca) though, and also as a nursery for baby lavenders that have germinated from seeds scattered by the existing mound of lavender. It’s a delicate path I need to tread, designing a garden that will serve our needs for fruits and vegetables (as well as chickens at some point), and at the same time that will preserve the fragile bonds among the existing trees and plants, fungi and microorganisms, both above and below ground. Only time will tell if I’ve got the balance right between the existing plants and my introductions.

Yesterday’s gentle rain continues today, off and on — just the perfect kind of watering for settling in the new planting. A good omen — these two days of rain, welcoming these new residents to the garden.

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