Phylloxera: To A Louse

Dr Andrew W. M. Smith

When Robert Burns satirically eulogised a flea in a ladies bonnet, he intended it as a play upon the juxtaposition of wealth and disgust, setting the piece in the pews of a church. Years after Burns wrote the poem in 1785, another louse was to have a much wider ranging effect on the wealth of Europe. The pest Phylloxera Vastatrix travelled across from America to wreak havoc in an unprepared Europe, whose unresistant vines were a playground for the voracious parasite from 1863 onwards. Phylloxera was no looker, and Burns can certainly be cited in condemnation of the “ugly creepin blastit wonner”.


Image source: Cartoon from Punch, 6 September, 1890 (Public Domain)

Exactly how the pest made its way across the Atlantic is a subject of some debate. Some blame the amateur plant trade, with British collectors having run a successful trade in the collection of rare plants since at least…

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