Saturday 9 April 2016
Island of whistling winds
Darwin's pal Joseph Hooker stopped by here on his 1840 Ascension Island trip and, as an accomplished botanist, he described and named more than 100 different plants. He was particularly taken with the Kerguelen cabbage Pringlea antiscorbutica was first recorded by William Anderson Captain Cook's surgeon/naturalist in 1776. As it says in the tin, it is rich in Vitamin C (and potassium) and so prevents the symptoms of scurvy among sailors who have been months at sea eating nothing but salt-horse and ship's biscuit (and weevils, if course). It is one of only a few brassicas that is self-fertile, an adaptation possibly driven by the whistling winds preventing pollination. As Leon van Eck noted, the food-faddist's kale Brassica oleracea is sooo yesterday, we'll soon see pretentious menus all over the world offering Kerguelen cabbage as the new digestive challenge.
Another species endemic to the islands of the Southern Ocean is the greater burnet Acaena magellanica which benefitted from selective predation by the European rabbit Oryctolagus cuniculus after they were introduced to Kerguelen in 1874 by sailors who hadn't a clue about ecology. Even after the rabbits had been eliminated from some of the smaller islands, the predated plants failed to recover because the balance of power among the windswept low vegetation had been irrecoverably changed, notably by swathes of European dandelion Taraxacum officinale.