Country diary: struggle for existence is woven into the fabric of a wood

Hollingside Lane, Durham: The rowan tree and its honeysuckle strangler, gripping like a boa constrictor, must have been entwined at least 15 years

Beside this stony track, skirting the edge of woodland, there is an embankment with a solitary rowan locked in an embrace with the twining stem of a honeysuckle. The climber, gripping like a boa constrictor, has twisted a section of the tree trunk into the shape of a corkscrew.

The tree and its strangler must have been entwined for at least 15 years. The rowan’s girth has expanded but the climber’s grip has been unrelenting, so the bulging trunk has begun to envelop a section of the honeysuckle stem. In another decade some of it will have vanished inside the tree, which is winning a contest played out at the metronomic pace of cell divisions in the protagonists’ annual increments of growth.

Honeysuckle, a woodland climber that only flowers well when it reaches bright sunlight.
Honeysuckle, a woodland climber that only flowers well when it reaches bright sunlight. Photograph: Phil Gates

Charles Darwin, in the concluding paragraph of On the Origin of Species, used the metaphor of “a tangled bank, clothed in plants of many kinds … dependent on each other in so complex a manner” to encapsulate his ideas of mutual adaptation and evolution. Those words play in my head whenever I pass by this rowan and its opportunistic tormentor.

When this honeysuckle seed germinated, the tip of its seedling stem would have moved in slow, ever-increasing circles until it touched the tree sapling and began to coil around it. Climbing was essential because it needed bright light to produce flower buds. Reaching the sunlight, it bloomed with a crepuscular fragrance that drifted through the wood on warm summer evenings, attracting pollinating moths, rewarding them with nectar. Then, when blackbirds came to feed on the scarlet fruits in autumn, they voided undigested seed from a perch above another potential woodland support: the cycle of life was complete.

Hollingside lane, Durham, on a misty winter morning.
Hollingside Lane, Durham, on a misty winter morning. Photograph: Phil Gates

The current catastrophic decline in biodiversity is often charted from a stocktaker’s perspective, as numerical losses from the inventory of life, but the beauty of a species lies not only in its existence, but in the complexity of its interactions with others. Honeysuckle’s struggle for existence is woven into the fabric of a wood, dependent on surrounding trees, insects and birds.

As Darwin concluded: “There is a grandeur in this view of life.”

Contributor

Phil Gates

The GuardianTramp

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