Saturday, August 5, 2017

Sensitive Brier

If I were a Native American child on the Kansas prairie, or perhaps if I were any current child who occupies these arid grassy deserts, my favorite plant might just be the Catclaw Sensitive Briar,  Mimosa quadrivalvis  L.  var. nuttallii  (DC. ), a low-lying perennial that is widespread over my native prairie plot.  It blooms in late May-June here, before the grass reaches high above it to blot out the sky, its pink puff-heads screaming for attention alongside the new shoots of bluestem and Indian grass, and its 4-foot long branches spreading through the prairie.  The yellow ends of mature flowers are the anthers.

Sensitive Briar is a member of the bean family, the Fabaceae, the latter scientific nomenclature sounding not so much like it describes a squat languorous legume as a pretentious ancient Roman dynasty.  Perhaps Sensitive Briar has a right to be a bit pretentious.  It is very nutritious for livestock, who seek it out and overgraze it, making the presence of Sensitive Brier an important indicator of overall range condition.  Some sources refer to it as a "brier" rather than a "briar," and after some searching, I admit that I will have to accept continued mystery about the proper form of reference. Perhaps Thomas Nuttall, the 18th Century English botanist honored by the subspecies name, could enlighten me if his spirit were to pass by this part of the continent.

The "sensitive" part of the name comes from the plants response to touch, an action scientifically termed "thigmonasty", although I don't know why it would be considered nasty unless one considers the impertinence of the touchers.  It folds its leaves from open, like the photo at the left, to closed, as seen at the right with the merest touch of child or wind, and also at night.  Other common names for the plant, Bashful Brier or Shame Vine, also refer to this thigmonastic action.  Thus, its attractiveness to children, who seem fascinated when they discover or are shown this little moment of cross-species contact.  I wonder, if such moments were the first introduction of many children to the world of plants, would ecology and Gaia be more prominent throughout life in our subsequent actions and thoughts?

The "catclaw" of the common name refers to the later pods of these flowers, their prickly nature making them far less attractive to children later in the summer.  These do not seem to cling to clothing so much as they scratch at anything in their vicinity, particularly any delicate little bare legs of children playing hide-and-seek in the tall prairie grass.  I suppose, like most of nature, one must always take the good with the bad, the rose with its thorns, the Catclaw Sensitive Briar with its pods.

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