Saturday, August 4, 2012

Velcro Legumes

Sorry everyone, I was away from home for a little piece and didn't have the urge to write.  Or to garden in my brown, crinkly garden.  Frankly, given the extremely hot weather here and the glaring sunshine, I have pretty much cast the garden aside to survive or die on its own.  Before I left, a week ago, I did stand out most of the day in the 106F weather, watering everything in sight.  The plants seemed to appreciate it and it only took me two days to rehydrate myself.  I left the garden this past week to the good graces of Mrs. ProfessorRoush, who at least kept the watermelon and pumpkins alive.

But a quick walk outside today and I was reminded, by the pictured seeds clinging to my jeans, that life in the garden goes on.  Does anyone out there care to guess at the identity of the seeds pictured above?  I can harvest loads of them from now through Fall, sticking resolutely to my pants and socks as they do, just by walking out into the prairie.  They are seeds, and they look a little like ticks, don't they?  And they stick to you like ticks.  No amount of washing will get these things off my pants, they have to be hand-removed.  That's my job because Mrs. ProfessorRoush takes a dim view of my pants sharing this bounty with her undergarments in the family washer. 

Looks like a tick, but it's a seed?  This is either Desmodium illinoense (Illinois Tickclover) or Desmodium canadense (Canda Tickclover or Showy Tick-trefoil ).  Both are native wildflowers here in the Flint Hills, and both are members of the Fabaceae, otherwise known to normal people as members of the bean family.   D. illinois has a prominent banner, with a darker spot near the base as seen above left.  D. canadense is lighter on the top, more violet on the bottom  and lacks the banner, as pictured to the immediate right.  D. canadense  also stands a fuller with more leaves in my yard, while D. illinoense stays low and spreads out at the base.

The delicate flowers of these natives bloomed in late June and early July here, rising over the prairie grass on two-foot tall racemes to entice passing pollinators.   They grow in the driest spots in my garden, sustained by deep tap roots and leathery leaves, and they are native all over the hillsides.    The flowers turn quickly to seedpods that have fine hooked hairs that allow them to cling to clothing and fur.  Fascinating, isn't it?  A natural "Velcro" created and utilized by this genus for seed dispersal.  And a very effective one at that, since a well-covered pair of socks can take quite some time to "de-tick". 

So why, you might ask, do I allow these to grow when they pop up?  The beans, to my knowledge, aren't edible, and the flowers certainly aren't showy.  But I am aware that they are used in agriculture in several ways, both as a nitrogen-fixing groundcover and because they produce a number of insect repelling compounds collectively known as  antixenotic allomones.  I allow them to grow solely for their legumistic benefits to my garden soil and I make darned sure to cut off the stems as soon as they set seed.   Otherwise, I'm sure that I'd find my next round of weeding time doubled by the time it would take me to de-seed my clothes.

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