Times for reflection

January 16, 2018

I was awakened this morning by the bedside radio alarm. That's quite normal, well perhaps the dawn chorus in spring and summer beats the radio alarm for my attention. This morning however it was Farming Today. I enjoy listening to the food and farming programmes. It seems to ground me for the day. It is what really matters. It is more relevant to me than the national and international news headlines that follow on the hour. The topical subject this morning was the use of robotics in arable farming. The established applications involve GPS, large and expensive tractors and very detailed field data and computing power. However the novel theme this morning was a little different. The presenter asked the listener to envisage machines moving around arable fields, but these machines are no bigger than a dining room table. Self-propelled, GPS guided, computer controlled, electric powered, loaded with sensors and clever tools. The Swiss Army Knife of farm machinery. The ambition included sensors that could detect individual weeds and apply herbicide directly to the leaves of the weed. Likewise fertiliser would be applied, only as necessary, at the one metre scale.

This made me think! Selective action at the one metre scale or less. This would be where farming meets the ecology of small spaces. Even though the arable field might be 20 hectares the management would be occurring in discreet units each independent of the other 199,999. This is a scale that qualifies it for inclusion in my evolving thesis that what matters to wildlife, where man is imposing his influence, are the small spaces. 

Now to revisit my thoughts about over zealous tidying as evidenced by my own observations on The Park. In my previous blog piece I took as my example of a plant demonised and thought a worthy target for severe control or eradication, Goldenrod, a garden escapee. My thoughts in this piece move to a wild plant that loves to move from rather wilder places into the garden and gain a foothold (roothold). In the lawn and garden beds, the paths and the drive. It also teases or delights us with its presence in the mown public areas or slightly less managed areas like roadside verges. I say teases or delights because it can pop up overnight cocking a snook at the mower. Contrariwise it is a delight too because in the UK it is a plant that can be found in flower in any month of the year. It has a sunny disposition growing pretty much anywhere that its seed lands. However, its success is its undoing when the tidyers are aroused. Its vigorous, enthusiastic and cheery demeanour seems to elicit a certain determination to beat it down. 

Like Goldenrod my previous cause celebre, my subject here is also a member of the daisy family (Asteraceae). It asserts itself by starting as a rosette of leaves, cleverly denying light to any would be competitor, grass or other herb. It has a knack of going from seed to rosette of leaves with taproot, equipping itself with flower buds, then bright flower to seed head in very short order. Here is another twist. So far I have referred to my subject as it, but now I must provide a further clue by changing to describing the subject as they. There are some plants in botanical books that do not just have the conventional two part Latin name. Usually we find a Latin name of two parts, a genus name followed by a specific name. Together these uniquely describe the species. Not so simple with my subject. It has the distinction along with a few others of having its two part name followed by agg. Agg., signifies the fact that the species is an aggregation of many micro-species. These micro-species result from apomixis, reproduction and formation of seed without fertilisation. In the case of my chosen subject, the plant(s) deserve some thoughtful appreciative tidying - there may be tens of micro-species. The reason why this may happen is weirder still. These plants can occur as triploids or tetraploids, that is they have three or four rather than the more common two, sets of chromosomes (diploid). So effectively some among their number can produce clones of themselves. They produce pollen and nectar and are visited by pollinators. This is true of both the diploid, sexual reproducers and the apomictics.

Bees, flies and butterflies gather pollen and nectar, rabbits and deer eat the plants. Birds eat the seeds. Speaking of seeds, each plant may produce 54 - 172 seeds per flower head. A single plant has the potential to produce more than 5000 seeds.

Before I reveal the identity of this marvel among wild plants, a few more clues. It has a long history of use in medicine and food. It originated in Europe and has been introduced to North and South America, South Africa, New Zealand, Australia and India. It occurs in all 50 States of the USA and most Canadian provinces.

Like the Goldenrod this member of the daisy family has yellow flower heads (sometimes orange-yellow). Each flower head comprises 40 to over 100 florets. The leaves are highly variable too. They may lay flat or stand up along side the flower head but all originate from the base of the plant. They vary in shape but are essentially oblong with lobes and sharp or dull toothed edges. The leaves give rise to the plants common name. More of that in a moment. It has a number of English common names (some no longer in use). These include blowball, milk-witch, faceclock, pee-a-bed and wild endive. Those lobed and toothed, jagged leaves led to the French common name dent de lion or "lion's tooth". So this successful plant is part of our childhood and adult experience. It wasn't put on our lawns, flower beds, public grassland and roadside verges to annoy us. It is part of the natural world, just like us.

In conclusion, no matter what your level of enthusiasm for tidying away Taraxacum officinale agg. please find it in you to temper your determination with a sprinkling of wonderment. If the common dandelion helps us to marvel at the complexity and adaptability of the natural world then even as you tidy it away, it wont die in vain.



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