Plants as forecasters of weather

People have often turned to nature to predict the season ahead, for instance:

  • An extraordinary flowering of cabbage trees is a portent of a long, hot summer
  • If wattles bloom early, it will be wet spring (a favourite of my grandmother’s)
  • If the (native) clematis blooms periodically, a warm season with gentle breezes lies ahead (Te Whānau a Apanui).

However, as any meteorologist will explain, it’s just not possible for plants to foretell the future – rather they are reflecting the season that has passed. For instance, a fiery autumn display is the result of a preceding long, hot summer. Immediate weather is another matter as, for instance, pinecones and seaweed are pretty good indicators of approaching rain (or not), but they don’t ‘forecast’ months, or even years, ahead.

In 1908 newspapers around the world (including New Zealand) ran items about the ability of Abrus precatorius, the “weather plant”, a member of the bean family also known as jequirity bean or rosary pea. This clipping is from The Ashburton Guardian of January 17, 1908.

In 1888 Professor Joseph Nowack used the plant, native to tropical regions, in Vienna to “predict to the hour” a thunderstorm which wrecked a garden party given by the Prince of Wales, shortly to become King Edward VII.

The British royal was so impressed he encouraged Prof. Nowack to set up an experimental weather station in London using the plants – unfortunately, reports ‘dried up’ and so I can elucidate no further.

The plant’s seeds are commonly used to make jewellery and rosaries, and for musical instruments, but the seeds are said to be extremely poisonous if broken. An interersting digression is that in India these seeds were used to weigh diamonds and other gemstones – the word ‘carat’ is apparently traceable to the Arabic ‘qirat’, the name for a carob seed which were all, more or less, the same weight. The entry for Abrus precatorius in A Modern Herbal by Mrs M Grieve (1931), claims the famous Koh-i-noor diamond, which now forms part of the British Crown jewels, was originally weighed using these seeds.

Botanical study of Abrus precatorius by Franz Eugen Köhler, published in Köhler’s Medizinal-Pflanzen in 1897. Image: Wikipedia

A letter writer to the Samoanische Zeitung newspaper (Samoa) in 1912 referred to Prof. Nowack and his prediction that in 1911 New Zealand would experience a major earthquake centred in Cook Strait, without commenting on the fact this hadn’t happened. The author added that “when I was in Tonga, several years ago, the Tongans informed me that when a hurricane was about to happen there, one of the species of banana plants always curled its blossom in a peculiar way several months before the gale came”.

Community knowledge gathered over generations is quite a different thing to a crackpot theory about a plant being able to predict natural catastrophes. In New Zealand today, Māori knowledge, or mātauranga Māori, is gaining a wider audience as science comes to understand the validity of this type of understanding of the natural world. Read more here.

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