Female flower seeks male flower

Having experienced a steady temperature of 32ºC inside my small house for several days in June, it was a real pleasure to feel chilled the other afternoon. Backing as it does on to the rocky foothills below Monchique, the shallow soil and expanse of sandstone rock act as storage heaters that have no chance to cool down, being topped up each day and no relief at night. Even a family of eucalyptus is feeling the heat and one standing alone, magnificent in height and breadth, looks stressed: lower branches weighed down with leaves are splitting away from the main trunk and resting upon the ground beneath to the detriment of my clothesline. There is surely more to come as summer advances and, at times like this, I long for the late autumn rains.
Tropical and sub-tropical plants are in their element and can be found in unexpected places. One that has fascinated me ever since the Boss and I came to live near Lagos is the cycad, a handsome throwback to the Permian era before dinosaurs had appeared – that is, about 200 million years ago.
At the end of the Permian period, either a combination of natural catastrophes or a single destructive event wiped out 95% of all living things but, somehow, the cycad survived much as it is today.
Accompanied by my small dog during a shopping trip last week, I took him for a walk round the residential areas of Lagos. His enjoyment suggested that his happiest memories are the ripe canine smells and unsightly detritus to be found on pavement, gutter and kerbstone and that perhaps he was a street dog at some time.
As we progressed in a series of mad rushes and sudden stops for in-depth analysis of recent deposits, we came to a cycad tucked away up a quiet corner. Cupped in the middle of the crown of dark and glossy green leaves was a female flower which over the next few days will open gradually to receive pollen from the cone of a male flower.
That it should be so lucky, there being no sign of one in the immediate neighbourhood, but perhaps a local garden centre may have a mature cone from which I may collect pollen.
Seeds ripen during the winter and may be harvested between January and March for planting in pots, something I hope to try. The trunk and thick flower stem can be used for food after essential treatment of the soft centres to remove cycasin, a toxin that causes nerve damage and paralysis.
At boarding school we were fed this product known as Sago, which we called Frogs’ Eyes because of its gruesome and slimy appearance. In Guam and the Philippines, it is part of the basic diet in time of hardship, but over consumption may lead to Parkinson-like symptoms and cattle that eat the leaves may suffer from “The Staggers”.
By the last week in June, our land was so hard and dry that local blackbirds were struggling to find enough to eat and the young ones spent time just squatting in patches of shade conserving their energy. Then the heavens opened and dumped monsoon downpours over a couple of days destroying delicate blossoms and washing away gravel patches from the driveway, with the upside that the earth softened enough for the birds to eat.
Also it gave the Bombeiros a short break, and while the countryside is wet those who live on the edge of the bush have no need to investigate every whiff of wood smoke, as happened a couple of weeks back.
A great pall of smoke appeared suddenly from behind a nearby hill, darkening the afternoon sky and reawakening memories of a massive bush fire in 2003 that almost reached our house.
Neighbours deployed to high ground to identify the most recent threat which proved to be far enough away not to cause any danger unless the wind changed.
As usual, the Bombeiros worked their magic and when after many hours they brought it under control we could relax again – until the next time. Apart from a danger to property and sometimes human life, there is the toll of wildlife that mainly goes unremarked, especially of ground nesting birds and also newborn mammals unable to outrun the flames.
In comparison, it seemed of little account when my email box suddenly started to fill at an alarming rate with such messages as “Granny, you’ve been hacked” and other terse one liners.
By the time I was made aware, my outgoing mail will have spread infection far and wide. Out of interest, I went to Google to enquire about this social blight dispensed by nasty nerds with bent skills. There I found a number of websites giving instruction in the science of hacking, one offering the choice of being either a “White Hat”, a “Grey Hat” or a “Black Hat”. The latter being the most evil and disruptive, while those of paler hue may be employed by anti-virus companies to test the efficiency of their product. That all these levels of perverted ability are illegal if used barely merits a mention. The steaming open of envelopes back in the innocent (?) days of my youth seems mild in comparison and retribution came swiftly if detected, whereas today if I cared to study from the web I, too, could become a hacker.
By Margaret Brown
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Margaret Brown is one of the Algarve Resident’s longest standing contributors and has lived in the Algarve for more than 20 years.