Tiny relaxes mid morning surrounded by the English ivy that covers the neighbor's house.
A bristling specimen of common burdock (Arctium minus) — Old World invasive biennial forb of waste places and member of the daisy family (Compositae or Asteraceae) — has set up shop just under the forsythia by the side steps at Chelsea-by-the-Sea, a perfect place for our camera's eye to study its progress from flower to seed. The first-year rosette of basal leaves went unnoticed by us, but this year's bushy crop of stunning magenta and pink flowerheads surrounded by hooked green burrs (x 4) towering over the stairs is making quite a splash.
You're probably aware that the "hook and loop fastener" Velcro was inspired by the structure of burdock's fruit, but did you know it all started in the Alps?
Detail of botanical illustration of Arctium minor shows cross section of flowerhead (magenta and pink) enclosed in a prickly burr or involucre, a series of bracts or phyllaries (green turning to brown when ripe) with hooks curving inward. (Flora von Deutschland Österreich und der Schweiz, 1885)
From SwissInfo.org's How a Swiss invention hooked the world:
It was in 1941 that [Velcro inventor Georges] de Mestral had his eureka moment. Walking his dog in the woods, he spotted that his woollen socks and jacket and his dog's fur were covered with burrs — small seeds or dry fruits found in many types of plant including thistles and, in this case, burdock.
Back home, de Mestral slipped a few burrs under a microscope and saw that their barbed, hook-like seeds meshed with the looped fibres in his clothes … in 1955, the hook-and-loop fastener was patented under the name Velcro, which comes from the French words "velours" (velvet) and "crochet" (hook).
Most "flower flies have "yellow-and-black stripes and are excellent mimics of wasps or bees," according to the US Forest Service site. "Flies are considered 'incidental' pollinators," adds the USDA Agricultural Research Service, "moving pollen on their body hairs from one flower to another as they search for nectar." This striking specimen was busy incidentally pollinating flowers of gold of pleasure, AKA false flax (Camelina sativa), another weedy plant of waste places that caught our camera's eye this morning along a seedy stretch of sidewalk during walkies. Camelina has "long been grown in Europe, its oil used as a lamp oil until the 18th century.
Gold of pleasure (Camelina sativa), a weedy member of the Brassicaceae or Cruciferae (AKA the crucifers, mustard family or cabbage family) of economic plants is another one of those "volunteers" in our own backyard that promises to be a boon to mankind. According to a Journal of Applied Poultry Research study, it is "one of various oilseed crops being studied for its potential value in biofuel production. The resultant by-product of oil extraction, camelina meal (CM), could be marketable as a livestock feed.
Update: Compare profile of burdock blossom, far right, with cross-section of flowerhead in botanical illustration above.
We stumbled onto camelina's virtues the other day when the Professor commented "I certainly agree that non-food-based biofuels are the future. Corn-based ethanol is justifiable, if at all, only as a bootstrapping measure," linking to an AgWeb article by Dr. Don Panter, President of Sustainable Oils, LLC:
Most important to the debate of fuel vs. food is the fact that biodiesel can be produced from non-food crops. Camelina, for example, is a non-invasive, oilseed crop of the mustard family. It can be grown in arid conditions or rotated with cereal crops and requires low amounts of fertilizer and pesticides. Aptly nicknamed “gold of pleasure,” the high-yielding energy-crop boosts farm revenues by creating a food-plus-fuel scenario. The meal produced from crushed camelina can be used to create omega-3 enriched feed for livestock, a significant benefit that has gotten swept away in the controversy. The beauty of non-food crops like camelina is that they are here today and don’t require new technology breakthroughs, just a commitment to see them succeed.
Update II: Burdock receives a gentleman caller, one of those fuzzy flower flies that looks like a bee to the untrained eye, "but there are several features that make it easy to separate [Syrphus sp.] from a bee: the eyes are huge, the antennae are short and stubby with a bristle half-way along, there’s nowhere to carry pollen and there is only one pair of wings."
And camelina's bounty isn't just for diesel-powered vehicles, livestock and flower flies:
Camelina's other attraction is its possible application in human nutrition. It has a unique fatty acid profile that could make it a good source of omega three and omega six fatty acids. McVicar suggests that the health food industry is currently seeking products that have improved health attributes, which might present new opportunities for camelina.
The biblical parable of the mustard seed comes to mind:
And Jesus said unto them, Because of your unbelief: for verily I say unto you, If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you.
— Matthew 17:20 (King James Version)
Back to biodiesel, Rudolph Diesel himself planted the seed — a peanut seed — over a hundred years ago, as BioShuttles explains:
Biodiesel has been around for over a century. Dr. Rudolf Diesel actually invented the diesel engine to run on vegetable oil and in fact when he presented his engine at the World Exhibition in Paris in 1900, his engine was running on a fuel derived from peanut oil. Prior to his death in 1913 he stated that; "The diesel engine can be fed with vegetable oils and would help considerably in the development of agriculture of the countries which use it."
"The use of vegetable oils for engine fuels may seem insignificant today. But such oils may become in course of time as important as petroleum and the coal tar products of the present time." However due to the low cost of mineral oils at the time his engine was modified to run such oils. However, in European countries since the mid 1990's and in UK since 2002 reductions in biofuels duty has made the use of biodiesel economically viable as is now seen to be the "sustainable fuel of the future".
The Lord and the Invisible Hand move in mysterious ways.
Update: Maggie's links, commenting on the old saying that "The good Lord didn't create anything without a purpose, but mosquitoes come close":
Be sure to check out all the links. It's a treasure trove, as usual.
Update II: A treasure trove of links to all things bright and beautiful at Modulator's Friday Ark #201
Update III: Lots more things bright and beautiful at Carnival of the Cats #228, now playing at Cat.Synth.com.