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The Heather in Lore, Lyric and Lay
Symbiosis of the Heather

RECENTLY, in a publication named "The Quiver," the Rev. Dr. Hugh Macmillan, who, as will be already inferred, has given considerable study to the Heather plant, wrote as follows on the parasitical nature, or what scientists term "symbiosis," of the Calluna.

He says: "In the bright autumn days the Scottish moorlands are covered from end to end with crimson Heather in full bloom. The Heather is one of the hardiest of plants, and is so well adapted to its growing place that we cannot imagine the moorlands without it. It looks as if it belonged to the bleak, mist-drenched soil, and grew out of it of its own accord. We naturally suppose that each Heather bush of the myriads upon which we gaze supports itself by means of its own roots, taking out of the brown peat by its own vital powers, in the exercise of its own special functions, the nourishment which it needs. Of all plants, the Heather, we should suppose, would be the most independent and self-sustaining, growing as it does so luxuriantly in such desolate situations. But science tells us that this is not the case. The Heather is rooted, not in the dead peat, but in the living mycelial material in which its rootlets are wrapped up. It cannot nourish itself, but must be nourished by a foster-parent, so to speak, which prepares its food for it, and reduces the peat on which it grows to a condition which it is able to absorb and circulate as food throughout its system. If you dig up carefully a Heather bush by the roots, and examine the finer fibers at the end of these roots, you will find that they are covered with a thin, whitish mantle or cobweb of delicate threads. This is not a part of the roots; it does not belong to the Heather at all. It is a separate living plant growing on the Heather roots—the spawn of a minute fungus. It is found upon every Heather bush, and spreads from root to root, causing all the wide acres of bright moorland vegetation to flourish from year to year by its living action. The connection between these two organisms is not only of the closest character; it is also lifelong. When once the partnership is formed it continues uninterruptedly as long as they both exist. As the roots grow and spread, the spawn of the fungus grows and spreads with them. Were this living fungous growth to be taken away from the roots of the Heather, the bush, even if supplied with every other requisite, growing in its own proper soil, and furnished with its own suitable food, would soon wither and die. The true secret of the failure which so often attends the transplanting of Heather is, that in the process this fungous growth is torn away from the roots, and it takes some time to form a new growth of it in the new soil, while in the meantime the Heather, bereft of its accustomed partner, languishes and dies. The first Scottish emigrants to Canada took with them some Heather bushes to plant in the new country in order to remind them of the dear old Highland home. But they did not know that they had broken off the strange association of the Heather plants with their fungoid friends in their native peat mould, and therefore the experiment necessarily proved abortive, and the poor Highlanders had to weep over the sad failure, naturally attributing it to a sentimental cause."

I submitted the reverend gentleman's statement to the late Professor Thomas Meehan, of Germantown, Pa., who kindly made the following comment thereon:

"The Rev. Hugh Macmillan states that the roots of a fungus prepares food for the Heather, and that the Heather roots furnish dead material as food for the fungus. I am asked whether this view is sound. It has been found that many plants do live in companionship in this way, and the term symbiosis has been coined to represent the phenomena. But I have not heard that the Heather is one of this class. The article, on the whole, is written very intelligently, and seems to have been founded upon well-recorded facts. On my grounds the Heather thrives as in its native wilds, but I have never suspected it of this habit. When the frosts of winter have passed I shall have pleasure in examining the roots."

(Both of these articles appeared in "The Florists' Exchange," a trade paper published in New York City.)

Subsequently Professor Meehan furnished other particulars concerning this matter, as follows:

"The foreman in charge of the department having oversight of these matters in the nursery of Thomas Meehan & Sons places the following note on my table. I have no doubt but that the doctrine of symbiosis, sound in sonic degree, is, like many other scientific discoveries, pushed to the verge of absurdity. I have little idea that it has a place in the economy of the Heather; but as we have it growing as if at home, I have given the writer the benefit of that little, by deciding to examine the roots for myself in the growing season.

"'Dear Sir: After reading your communication to "The Florists' Exchange," regarding symbiosis of the Heather, I thought, perhaps, you would like me to call your attention to the fact that, in your lower greenhouses, there is a batch of C. vulgaris cuttings that were put in last October in pure sand. Over 90 per cent. have struck and are growing.

"'The Rev. Hugh Macmillan's fungus is evidently not necessary to the Heather in the young state, or else it is a constitutional matter without which the Heather would not be in existence."'

The lamented death of the eminent gentleman unfortunately precluded further light being thrown on this most interesting phase of Heather Lore.

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