Professor Mordant’s Sea-Sand Succulents
Every year as Halloween approaches, I recall my visit to Professor Mordant’s remote island to tour his collection of sea-sand succulents. The island was rumored to be an eerie, inhospitable place—a volcanic outcropping devoid of vegetation, nothing like the mainland resort where I and other garden photojournalists had been sunning ourselves in style.
I alone accepted the professor’s invitation. I calmed my trepidation by anticipating a big story…or at least a small adventure. It turned out to be both. But except for these photos, I’m unable to prove it. I fear that now, after the tsunami, this is the only record that remains.
The moon had risen on All-Hallow’s Eve by the time the boatman set me ashore on the island’s rocky beach. Serpentine foam rustled black pebbles, and a chill wind brought the scent of seaweed and something seductive. Vanilla? Surely not.
The professor, his black cape billowing, was silhouetted by the full moon. Beyond jagged rocks, a greenhouse glinted. If he were disappointed that I came alone, Mordant gave no indication. Gesturing grandly, in a voice silken and slightly accented, he explained that his greenhouse was semi-submerged by the tides. “It contains the largest collection of sea-sand flora anywhere in the world,” he said proudly. “It’s low tide, the perfect time to see it.”
His bony fingers steadied my elbow as I stepped over tide pools that mirrored the moon, and what appeared to be brain coral. “Furred eel cactus,” Mordant murmured, but the surf blurred his words. “Fur seals?” I asked. One, near my ankle, uncoiled. OK, not a seal.
“Numerous sea-sand succulents appear furry,” the professor continued. “The adaptation enables them to trap and ingest plankton.” His lips pursed as though he, too, might enjoy plankton now and then.
Mordant explained that many of the plants in his collection—like these fanged clams—were nocturnal and beginning to awaken.
Rusty hinges groaned as he opened the greenhouse door. Inside the air was dank and vanilla-scented. What at first I thought was frost on window panes were salt encrustations. It was a relief to be out of the cold wind. And when I saw sea-sand specimens on rock ledges and waist-high teak benches…oh! I felt as gleeful as an archeologist in King Tut’s tomb.
Onion-like orbs bobbed in a tank of water. “When dormant, they rise to the surface,” the professor told me. “In the open ocean, they might float for years before washing ashore.”
I gasped. “Surely those aren’t green sea spheres? I thought they were extinct! That is, if they ever existed.”
“Yes. They’re rarer than ambergris, and more valuable—to collectors.”
Did this explain the bulging burlap sack that he had handed to the boatman? I glanced at the professor’s angular profile. Was it possible this hermit was wealthier than any pharaoh?
He squinted at a sea-sand succulent that had bubbly, cancerous-like growths. “Careful. That’s a Pele plant.”
I drew back. “Pay-lay?”
“Named for the mythical volcano goddess of Hawaii. The plant is bioluminescent when submerged. Out of water, it exudes a substance that can burn skin.”
I felt droplets on my arm and looked nervously for the source. Perhaps that azure plant with figlike fruit? The vanilla smell was cloying and I felt oddly hungry and weak. Mordant grasped my arm. “For heaven’s sake, don’t inhale! Mermaids give this to victims to subdue them. Salt-water taffy was named for it, but of course is very different.”
So many wondrous things! Floral jellyfish with delicate tentacles…
…a sea euphorbia in full bloom
…a coal-black gaster-lobster
…a crested reef ariocarpus
…windowpane coral (Fenestraria aquaticus)
…Myrtillocactus ‘Whale Spout’, crested
…Crassula ‘Sea Snakes’
…and an impressive colony of tartan sand urchins (“sea floor euphorbia”).
What Mordant called “blister plants” were everywhere. I might not have noticed them, so closely did they resemble pebbles. “They’re the largest single-celled flora,” he said of plump buttons each about an inch in diameter. “This group is undergoing mitosis.” When I pressed one with my fingertip, I expected the plump cell to yield like a water balloon, but it was firm.
“What genus do blister plants belong to?”
He sighed. “Mordant,” my dear, “Mordant.”
I hope you enjoyed my Halloween spoof. For the true names of the plants, which are primarily cacti and succulents from very dry climates, go to my Bizarre Succulents page. — Debra
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