Friday, May 28, 2010

Dandelion seeds

Photo from

The architecture of plants is amazing. Their roots, stems, leaves, flowers and seeds all have evolved to fit the ecological niche in which that plant grows.

White oak seedlings send down a long, fat taproot to anchor what will one day become a tree with a massive canopy. The deep seated roots stabilize the tree in wind storms and soak up moisture from deep in the earth, keeping the tree alive during dry years.

The bittersweet is a vine. It’s stem is too weak to support the entire plant, and so uses the support of the trees around which it twines as a support. The growing tip of the bittersweet waves around in a circular motion known as circumnutation until it finds an appropriate small tree and then starts wrapping around it to extend upward. The tip of the vine keeps nutating and the vine continues its climbing process by forming a spiral around the tree.

The petioles, leaf stems, of sugar maple trees have an abscission layer, a group of cells that shut down when day length shortens in the fall. When these cells shut down, the tree no longer wastes water and nutrients on leaves that will soon freeze and die. The water and nutrients are stored in the roots, ready to rise as maple sap the next spring - a successful conservation of resources by the maple and a wonderful opportunity for us to harvest sap for maple syrup.

The small white flowers of the plum trees in our back yard need to be pollinated; they don’t self pollinate in the wind. the anatomical structure of the blossom is ideal to encourage fuzzy bodied bees to do their job. The bee has to crawl over the anthers of the flower to reach the nectary where the nectar the bees need is secreted. As bees fly from flower to flower collecting nectar, they pick up pollen from every flower they visit and distribute it onto the next plant. In their travels, as long as two types of plum tree in the area, the bees will successfully pollinate them, ensuring ripe plum seeds at the end of the summer.

Right now, I’m admiring dandelion seeds. As much as I despair at ever controlling these botanical pests, I love the seeds. They are beautiful in their apparent simplicity and in their ecological complexity. I like to use the image of a single dandelion seed floating in the air in my fiber work. I blow dandelions just to watch the tiny pale gray green seeds drift, hanging from ethereal white silk umbrellas.

Way beyond their beauty, dandelion seeds are triumphs in the game of survival that is their reason for existing. One dandelion produces hundreds of seeds that cling to the flower stem until ripe and dry and then spread for miles on the slightest breeze. Dandelions are even more impressive survivors. Our daughter Amber and her husband Jesse did a major weeding of their flower gardens last week. They ripped hundreds of golden yellow dandelion flowers, their stems, leaves and long fleshy roots from the ground and piled them on the mulch in their garden to wither and die in the sun. The leaves withered and died, but those fat fleshy roots continued to feed the golden flowers which ripened into striated gray green seeds with silken umbrellas. The white puffs of seeds waited patiently for that gust of wind that would sweep them into the air and carry them to neighboring lawns and gardens.

The day before the wind blew, we carefully lifted those lifeless plants, and without disturbing the seeds, stuffed them into black garbage bags, ensuring that the entire dandelion, seeds included really was lifeless.

I love the architecture of plants, in all its amazing combinations.

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