Saturday, February 14, 2009

Oh Draba

I'm always on the lookout for nature's minature wonders, and every since I took a flowering plant taxomony class as an undergraduate, I keep an eye out for tiny flowering mustards in the early spring. During the course, our professor took us into a field next to a forest and asked us what plant species were flowering around us. I looked down and spotted a small white mustard in bloom. Looking around, I could see the plant in bloom everywhere, and I thought, "Here is a species I didn't know about." I mentioned seeing the blooming plant to our professor, and he asked me to look closer at those little plants. Turns out, there were about 7 different species blooming right there! I was shocked because while I initially grouped every plant into one species, with a little knowlegde, I discovered a diverse group of organisms living out their lives below my feet. I've remembered that lesson every since, namely that knowledge alters your scale of perception and understanding, and the natural world around you is much more complex than initial observations would suggest.

Ever since that course, I've been on the look out for Draba. Draba is a tiny, white flowering mustard that blooms in early spring. Aldo Leopold, in Sand County Almanac, had this to say about Draba.

"He who hopes for spring with upturned eye never sees so small a thing as Draba. He who despairs of spring with downcast eye steps on it, unknowingly. He who searches for spring with his knees in the mud finds it, in abundance."

Of course, it's been awhile since I took that flowering plant taxomony course, and I'm beginning to forget some of the plants I once knew. Imagine my excitement then, while I thought I found Draba in my backyard! I snapped some photos and got out my taxonomy books to figure out what species was growing in my backyard. The more I looked, the more I couldn't determine what Draba this was (and I began to get a sneaking suspiscion that the plant in my backyard was not actually Draba, but something different). After an hour or so of working through my plant keys (yes, I am actually that geeky), I disappointing realized that what I had in my backyard was Cardamine hirsuta. Cardamine hirstua is common weed species found in disturbed areas and is native to Europe. Oh well, it was still neat to understand a little more about the wildlife in our backyard, and I'm back on the hunt for Draba.

Cardamine hirstua growing in our backyard. I still had to get down on my knees in the mud, and I found it plenty abundant. But, definitely not Draba.

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