Sunday, December 16, 2012

A Tale of Two Bittercresses.

Today we planted a flower border.  Part of the Charles Street Recreation Ground is being cared for by Louth Community Food Garden (A Transition Town Louth initiative).  We thought  some wildflowers would be nice.  James pointed to a little 'weed' already growing and remarked, "That’s Hairy Bittercress – you can eat that".

I took a little of it home.  On dissecting, under a microscope, the two millimetre long flower, I noticed four long stamens and two shorter, hidden stamens. It was the Wavy Bittercress, Cardamine flexuosa, rather than the Hairy Bittercress, Cardamine hirsuta.  Good job it was still flowering in mid-December or we would never have known and the sum total of human knowledge would have been less extensive.  When viewed under the x50 magnification of a stereo microscope the flowers are spectacularly beautiful but for all those who don't have such an instrument there's always the internet.  Here's a nice webpage  with photos of both C. flexuosa and C. hirsuta so you can see there's not much difference.  However, there is a preferred habitat difference between the two species with C. flexuosa found more often in damper, partially shaded locations than the dry sites favoured by C. Hirsuta.

Joan Gibbons, in The Flora of Lincolnshire, notes that C. hirsuta is recorded in all Lincolnshire Divisions, describing the distribution as "Common; gardens and waste places".  However, she lists C. flexuosa as not recorded in four of the eighteen Lincolnshire Divisions and the distribution is given as "Occasional; damp woodrides and bogs".  Now this is all rather curious as this bank along the roadside edge where we are creating a wildflower border is not a damp woodland ride or a bog but is rather well drained open ground, much more likely to be the favoured habitat of C. hirsuta than of C. flexuosa.

Enter the man from the Council.  We had of course sought, and received, permission to turn this strip of neglected ‘weedy’ land, bordered by close-cropped grass one side and a fence to the road on the other, into a wildflower haven.  Officialdom was suitably supportive: "I'm more than happy for this work to proceed and you have my full support",  but then came the sting in the tail: “Can I just ask that when you spread the seed at the fence-line that you try to leave a gap along the fence line itself, so that we're not creating a situation where the flowers are overly protruding through the fence onto the path like the weeds currently do, as we have to spray them back annually from the fence side and the wild-flowers may add to this issue if planted too close to the fence".  The Council doesn't do organic when it comes to pavement edges.

Now there is a problem with wildflowers and the clue’s in the name.  They are not always very tame.  The bittercresses, like other Brassicaceae, have seed-pods that burst explosively scattering the seeds a few feet.  Furthermore, the seeds can lie dormant in the soil for many years, which may account for the existence of bittercresses here before we even started our wildflower seed sowing.  So like it or not, some of these plants are going to grow dangerously close to the place that that the Council deems appropriate for drenching with glyphosate.

Of course, I'm not going to suggest that C. flexuosa is a rare and endangered species, but it is the less common of the two common bittercresses and, moreover, it is growing here on a somewhat surprising site.  It is little details like this that not only demonstrate biodiversity but also add interest to our neighbourhood, at least for those with eyes to see and curiosity to satisfy.  If the Council were to wipe this diversity away with a quick pass of Roundup we will all be the poorer, except for the shareholders of Monsanto, who rely of the ignorance and carelessness of the global population.  There is accumulating evidence that glyphosate is a much more problematic chemical than the manufacturers and our governments would have us believe.  The serious student may wish to start at this extensive database but there are many more accessible accounts such as this  and this and this one.
Most important of all is the paper by Michael Antoniou et al., Roundup and Birth Defects, Earth Open SourceJune 2011.

I wonder what it will take for people to open their eyes to appreciate the wondrous complexity of the natural world and for our governments, national and local, to stop the ecocide they are committing.  I for one, prefer to take out my hand-lens and count the stamens in a tiny flower than to wonder whether my tiny, but growing, grandchild will be born with birth defects because an American corporation wanted to maximise its profits and an English Local Authority wanted a tidy road verge.