Monday, June 26, 2017

Spiderwort: Blue Tears

At days end, spiderwort bloom dissolves into a liquid blue pearl

When serious-minded naturalists hear comments like, “Hey look, those spiderworts are crying blue tears!” their Terramar® underpants (“for the discerning outdoorsman, with soft spun polyester that stretches with every move and wicks moisture like there’s no tomorrow”) immediately bunch. So, on a recent paddle trip on Steinhatchee River, when our dozen-boat fleet of kayaks drifted past a cluster of deep purple blooms, I considered my words carefully before responding to the young girl's comment.  

Anthropomorphizing—attributing human characteristics and emotions to plants, animals and other non-human things—is usually reserved for poets and the writers of children’s books. But, for nature guides whose job is to facilitate healthy relationships between people and nature, sprinkling a little anthropomorphism into discussions about wildlife can be useful. People like detecting a hint of humanity in the other species in their midst. It’s comforting, but more importantly, it makes those species more familiar and strengthens the sense of connectedness.

I was reminded of this on a recent hike at Cape Canaveral. Our group had just emerged from behind the dunes when we saw a leatherback sea turtle laying eggs in a sand pit. As we stood back watching this miracle, we talked about the challenges this species faces. A turtle expert in our group explained that this species is teetering on extinction, and that the current number of nesting females—estimated to be between 26,000 and 46,000—is about a third of the number in 1980.  But it wasn’t until we noticed a single tear, glistening in the moonlight as it rolled down the mother turtle’s cheek, that the group was visibly moved. In that instant they developed a heart-felt empathy for the mother turtle that dwarfed any emotions stirred by our talk of extinction. Even after the herpetologist explained that the tears were a natural bodily function, designed to wash sand from the turtles eyes in the same way our own eyes gush when sand gets in them, some of our crew couldn’t shake by the notion that the turtle mother was crying.

Another way to help people identify with plants and animals is to show how other cultures and even our own predecessors used them. Pause alongside a sand myrtle bush and start droning about the plant’s anatomy and you’ll soon be talking to yourself. But mention that early oil men believed groves of these bushes indicated large deposits of oil underground, and you’ll find your audience more receptive. Even though the oil "dowsers" have abandoned the use of sand myrtle in favor of more reliable sensing technologies of the nuclear age, for the purposes of nature interpretation, knowing this plant was once the famous “oil bush,” makes it still relevant.

Over the years of studying wild lore, I’ve come to realize that Florida’s wild places are pulsing with such stories. The river banks are lined with species that are currently being used in products with such varied uses as detecting lead and arsenic in the air, removing pollutants and metals from water, detecting landmines (in other countries) and improving windshields. Some are used for everyday products like clothing, shelters and hundreds of medicinal compounds, while others are used for more nefarious purposes like explosives and rifle sights. My challenge these days is resisting the temptation to rattle off the lore of every plant we pass. Instead, I try to direct my "interpreting"  towards only those people who look like they want to hear it. Of course, there are some stories everyone seems to appreciate.

 Back on the Steinhatchee River, I realize my crew is starting to drift away; better talk quickly.

“The “tears” we’re seeing are the remains of the spiderwort’s flower. When the bloom reaches the end of its half-day life span, enzymes begin dissolving it. By dusk, nothing remains but a gob of purple liquid. This was the inspiration for the plant’s nick-name, “widows tears.”

Stamen hairs of a spiderwort bloom tell a story
The group is continues to drift away. But, there’s one more thing I think they’d be interested in hearing.

“These days, spiderworts are sometimes planted near nuclear reactors because they can detect radiation.”

Heads turn and paddles stop moving. A few people start to lightly back-paddle toward the plant.

“In the 1970’s, Professor Sadeo Ichikawa at the Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, New York, discovered that the blue stamen hairs in spiderwort flowers turned pink in the presence of radiation. Through his research, he refined his technique to the point that he can now detect the amount of radiation exposure like a biological Geiger counter.  By taking daily counts of the number of cells that have changed from blue to pink along the single-cell strands of the stamen hairs, researchers can monitor the levels and changes in radiation.”

A young girl pulls her kayak toward the plant and squints for a better view, “I wonder if it’s crying pink tears?”

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