Nature's Wonderful Mysteries
Reprinted courtesy of Green Scene, Pennsylvania Horticultural Society
The Disparities Between Science and My Uncle Tom's Explanations
Gardening and exploring nature in general should be relaxing and satisfying, and I have finally reached that stage, but I must admit that there were times when some strange phenomenon became quite irritating if I did not understand it. Some of the answers I received to the profound questions I posed were about as useful as a trapdoor in a rowboat. Others, like those offered by my Uncle Tom, were both whimsical and joyous.
Take the peanut plant, for example. My Uncle Tom introduced me to this oddball when I was twelve. The fresh-turned soil was already warm and heavy with the odors of spring when he informed me that we were going to plant peanuts. (To me, a city boy, this made about as much sense as planting bottle caps.) I went along with his scheme but, about a week or so later, I was struck with the brillance of this man as the little plants broke through the soil.
As the season progressed the plants developed rather pretty yellow flowers. Following this colorful display they formed thread-like branches, each tipped with a small appendage, which my uncle called "pegs." But the greatest thrill of all was yet to come - the morning I discovered that those little fellows had buried themselves (or had been buried) in the sandy soil. Now here was a real mystery! I watched carefully for the next few days, but it seemed to be a question of "now you see them and now you don't."
I sought out Uncle Tom who, not one to be miffed by simple puzzles, gave me the answer. Or at least his version of it. It seemed, he explained, that there is this "peanut peg beetle" who can't stand the sight of those pegs cluttering up the landscape and so he scurries about and buries them all as fast as he can. Now this explanation seemed somewhat less than perfect but, until something better came along, it had to do. At least it kept me quiet while I pondered alternatives.
Another mystery that plagued me surfaced that same year while I was visiting my aunt and uncle during my Christmas vacation. The temperature fluctuated between 10° above to 10° or 15°F. below the freezing point. Each morning my uncle would peer at the rhododendron just outside the kitchen window and quote the temperature within a few degrees. He was a crafty old bird, and I figured that he had a thermometer stashed away somewhere known only to him. But he continued to perform this trick - whether near the house or in the field - just so long as there was a rhododendron in sight.
Rhododendron leaves at 45
Photo by Marvin Berg
Finally I coaxed the secret out of him. At the freezing point (32° Fahrenheit) the leaves begin to droop and curl somewhat. As the temperature continues to drop they hang ever lower on the branch and begin to form a tube. The process continues until, at 10°, they are rolled as tight as a Havana cigar and hang perpendicular to the ground. It was fun to arise each morning and predict the temperature and then check for accuracy. A few mornings I missed the mark by more than a few degrees and years passed before I realized that there are correction factors that must be applied at times - the morning sun on the leaves, the wind velocity.
Rhododendron leaves at 25
Photo by Marvin Berg
My uncle's explanation for this marvelous phenomenon? There is a rhododendron worm that lives on the shrub's leaves. As the temperature drops it wraps the leaf tighter and tighter about itself to keep warm. Since I have always been rather scientific in seeking answers I could easily see through the weakness of this story. It didn't take a genius to figure out that there couldn't possibly be enough worms to go around. But, rather than be disrespectful, I dropped the subject.
The Mystery of the Considerate Seed
All of which leads up to another mystery that fascinates me to this very day: the seed. Take timing, for example. My uncle always planted a short row of lettuce just before winter set in, which meant that he would be the first to enjoy a garden fresh salad come spring. But why didn't those seeds sprout during the winter? Why were they considerate enough to wait until spring rather than have him dig for it under a foot of snow? Just about anyone can tell it takes just the right temperature, but who can tell you
One year I planted the bright red seeds of the jack-in-the-pulpit ( Arisaema triphyllum ). For a few years I diligently sought some sign of seedlings and then gave up. A few more years passed before I happened to remember them again. There they were, a cluster of little plants. Why five years? What clever little device sets the magic in motion?
Consider other fascinating things about the seed. Lying there under the soil, the roots eventually grow downward and the stems upward. Or, think of the variations possible within all growing things. This most remarkable mystery of all revolves around the tremendous genetic pool that exists in plants and animals. The mustard plant ( Brassica oleracea ), for example, responding to man's manipulation, has produced six different vegetables. By emphasizing certain parts of the original plant, we have developed cabbage (terminal bud), cauliflower (flower), kohlrabi (stem), brussels sprouts (lateral bud), broccoli (stems and flowers), and kale (leaves). Because of this strange ability, we have enjoyed, and will continue to enjoy, the wonderful new varieties we look for in the colorful seed catalogs each year.
I never have had the nerve to ask my uncle about these mysteries of development. It is doubtful (being the simple, self-educated man that he was) if he would have mentioned, or even suspected the existence, of dominant and recessive genes that are within those versatile pellets we sow and which supply us with such amazing diversity. But I can almost guess at his imaginative, ingenious and wonderful revelation. "It seems," he would begin, "that there is this little bug inside the seed who is in charge of all these chores..."
So then, what is the final word on these wonderful mysteries? When all is said and done, a clear understanding of the scientific basis for these miracles shouldn't prevent us from enjoying these brilliant displays that we meet along the way. It is enough that we watch them unfold as we discover each in its own time. If, while watching the magician's act, his secrets were always known, the magic would not exist. I believe I was just as content (perhaps more so) when, as a lad, I would watch the full moon sailing across a cloudless sky, secure in the belief that it was made of green cheese.
Marvin Berg writes for Organic Gardener, Mother Earth, Gardens for All and Family Food Garden.