Wednesday 4 December 2013

First catch your harebell

I've had two first year Biology lab sections to play with since September and I've had a lot of fun.  I think they have too.  On Monday morning after my first class I thought I'd check in to see what was on for Biology between 3 and 5pm that afternoon and I discovered that the material laid out in the manual was definitely not laid out on the bench. I believe standard practice under those circumstances is to shrug, apologise to the students and cancel class. We were meant to be looking at the anatomic structure of flowering plants, specifically comparing dicots [two seed leaves, leaves with netted veins, flower-parts in 4s and 5s - such as anenome (Ranunculus nemorosa), ash (Fraxinus excelsior), daisy (Bellis perennis)] with monocots [one seed-leaf, parallel-veined leaves, flower-parts in 3s and 6s -like bluebell (Hyachinthoides non-scripta), wheat (Triticum aestivum) and ryegrass (Lolium perenne)].

Eeeee when I were a lad, bluebells were called Scilla non-scripta. My first bio-mentor Mr Wilkinson told us that it was so named because the early taxonomists were trying to recreate the Utopian world of the Classics before the Dark Ages had obliterated 'civilisation'.  If some plant was mentioned by Aristotle, his successor Theophrastus Θεόφραστος (author of Enquiry into Plants Περί φυτών ιστορία) or in Apicius' On Cooking De re Coquinaria, however sketchily described, then "av Gud" the new scientists in Sweden and Germany would find it.  The Scilla of ancient Greece had a mark on the petals so distinctive that it had been recorded. Bluebells don't grow around the Mediterranean, but were the nearest match to Scilla in Northern Europe, so they were called Scilla-without-the-mark,  Not to be confused with the Scots' bluebell Campanula rotundifolia especially as the latter is a dicot.

Someone suggested driving down the road to the garden centre and I thought of driving 40km home because the manual mentioned nasturtiums and part of the poly-tunnel is currently knee-deep in them.  Then I twigged (duh!) that the Institute is on a sort of campus with flower-beds and is just across the road from a river with its own bank. I asked if anyone had a trowel I could borrow, so I could weed some of the flower-beds and use the spoil for educational purposes.  Nobody had a trowel and I was about to go off and attack the earth with a plastic spoon from the canteen when a long-handled shovel was materialised.  Armed thus I set off boldly into the chilly outdoors and soon enough filled a couple of xerox-box lids with a gallimaufry of small herbs: a dandelion-like member of the compositae, a pretty yellow-flowered crucifer and something that looked like shepherd's purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris), which is also in the crucifer family, and at least 6 or 8 other species.  And a couple of species of grass to hold the fort for monocots.  Then I walked across the car-park and clipped some ornamental bamboo to show that monocots can be woody too.

Sure beats getting into a car and destroying the planet.

The lab was unexpectedly wonderful.  My two mature students got stuck in with scapels, cutting transverse section of the root and stem of their plant - which promptly exuded a white sap: further evidence of its similarity to dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) and made a beautiful prep stained the palest blue showing all the transport vessels.  At the other end of the lab, I explained that crucifers are so called because of their little cross-shaped yellow flowers and that the family includes mustard. I hypothesised (it's a science class, so you're meant to do that at every opportunity) that the leaves should taste a little mustardy.  The thought being the deed, one of the students promptly snagged off a leaf and scarfed it down chomp chomp.  It didn't taste of much except "grass".  She and her partner also produced an exquisite cross-section of the other dicot species, so we had two things to compare. Later on, Omnivore reported that there was a distinctly mustard after-taste.  Of course, it is streng verboten to eat anything in the lab, but I didn't care. Finding stuff out trumps doctrinaire regulations.  Good fun, a good day.

1 comment:

  1. Dau II (to borrow a phrase) and I did an autopsy on a piece of Whiting last night. Great learning opportunity, may whet her appetite for the sciences...not a student you would want in any class methinks however, boisterous, opinionated and bloody rude at times to be honest