Wednesday, September 13, 2006


The jewelweed pods are ripe along the path. I look for the fat ones and cannot resist touching them, lightly with my fingertip. Kapow! The pods curl back like slingshots, hurling their seeds. Amen, I say, amen. The tiny particles of sea-green hope are prayers of sorts. Explosive dehiscence it's called. A fine name for a surprising property of plants.

The jewelweed pods fling their contents faster than the eye can follow. Witch hazel is another of our New England plants that has learned to pitch its seeds. To walk through a witch hazel thicket in late fall is to enter a no-man's-land raked by machine-gun fire. Apparently there are lots of plants worldwide that dehiss with a bang (I made up that word). The Venus flytrap closes its voracious jaws in milliseconds.

One doesn't expect such quickness from plants. The whole point of roots, after all, is sitting tight. Darwin wrote a book on the movement of plants. I've visited his home in the English countryside and sat quietly in his greenhouse as he must have sat, with infinite patience, noting such things as "circumnutation," the slow revolvings of growing plants, and plotting their peregrinations on glass plates. The Power of Movement in Plants is a boring book unless you are keen on things like the "nyctitropic movement of petioles" (or the powers of mind of a man who has mastered the art of attention). I don't recall that Darwin touches upon explosive dehiscence, but then such brio somehow seems out of place in the unhurried rhythms of his country home. A walk to the nearby village of Downe was almost more excitement than the great naturalist could bear.