November 11, 2020

Seeds, Velcro, and Solstice Celebration

Don’t great stories usually begin with a dog? Consider George de Mestral, a Swiss electrical engineer who took his dog for a walk in the woods 50 years ago and invented Velcro as a result. It’s a bit more complicated, but here’s the story.

Image courtesy Mary Root/Root ResourcesMestral returned from his walk and found both his clothes and his dog’s coat covered with burs. As he applied himself to the task of removing the clinging burs, Mestral wondered how these burs—the seeds of burdock plants—stuck so insistently to fur or clothing. Examining one under a microscope, he discovered the hook-like structure that guaranteed a successful seed dispersal strategy. After experimenting for years with hook-and-loop fasteners and fabrics, Mestral patented his design* and eventually sold 60 million yards a year of his synthetic bur: Velcro.

The seeds pictured below are called bidens—no, not Joe’s family!—also known as “beggar’s ticks.”

Bidens.jpgSome bidens came home with me last weekend after a morning spent in a restored prairie in the Cook County forest preserves. I didn’t mean to bring them home but, as you can see if you look closely, each has two teeth (hence, bi-dens) that, similar to the burdock bur, attach to a passing deer, dog, or human.

Think about all the different strategies seeds have to disperse in order to ensure survival of the species and find new territories to colonize. Some seeds are transported by wind, some by water. Some attach themselves to animals (including humans) by sticking to hides or clothing; some pass through digestive systems and are deposited in a packet of natural fertilizer. Some burst open and others drop heavily to the ground.

Fascinating facts: number of seeds per teaspoon of several native plants

  • cream false indigo—250
  • stiff gentian—20,000
  • Culver’s root—60,000

Collecting seeds, as we volunteers engaged in restoring health to our spectacularly beautiful and diverse prairies, woods, and wetlands do this time of year, always compels me to pay attention to these different strategies, to observe the world more closely—with patience, wonder, and gratitude.

Try it sometime! Who knows what inventions await when you get home?

*Mestral was later inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.


Let’s Celebrate the Solstice

For the last 15 years, I’ve hosted an event to celebrate the summer solstice and to raise funds to support my campaigns and my work as a Commissioner on the Board of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District.

Wouldn’t you know it?! We “Zoomed” right past that this year!

So let’s celebrate the winter solstice instead and gather (remotely) to mark the shortest day of the year. Drinks, entertainment, and soon to come: more light each day!

Date: Monday, December 21
Time: 5 p.m.–6 p.m.
Location: Your place via Zoom

Register today!