Greetings from New Caledonia, where I'm spending a few days with my biologist friend Phil Gleeson poking around in one of the world's great hotspots of biodiversity. For readers who don't share my curiosity about natural history, I'll try to make a few forays into matters of placehood and culture. But there's no question that I'm here for the plants and animals -- or perhaps more precisely, that believing that I'm here for the plants and animals is a crucial article of faith for the trip, to be questioned only after the trip is over.
Meanwhile, meet a Cunonia macrophylla. Context is important: Imagine a long drive into the hills north of the capital, Nouméa, then a long hike up through dark rainforest and finally out onto a steep heathland flanking the upper slopes of Mount Moné (elevation 1075 m) with blasting views of Noumea and the whole southern coast (see pic above).
Sticking up from the heath, sentinels against the wind, are two-metre high characters with big leaves. At first they look only a little weird. (Click any pic to enlarge.)
The little red thing in the center is the stipule, a sheath from which new leaves and flowers emerge. It was easy to watch stages of this process on different plants, and it's very peculiar.
New leaves and flowers emerge from a wet, white substance that's impossible not to compare with human sperm.
And as the new leaves emerge, so too does the next red stipule, at 90 degrees to the previous one.
Cunonia gave me the first of several near-abstract pictures that are barely recognizable as plants as all.