"It's life, Jim, but not as we know it." Don't you just love that famous line from Star Trek (actually it's from a song about Star Trek rather than the series itself, but it's become so popular that we all assume Dr Spok actually said it!)? I've been muttering it to myself a lot this week after a fascinating discovery in the vegetable garden made me realise I don't necessarily recognise 'life' even when I see it with my own eyes.
I've been happily watching a carrot, sown in the spring of 2013, slowly 'go to seed' (yes, in the deep south, it really does take 18-20 months to do this). From a strong, tall, upward shooting stalk, it formed tight flower buds which eventually opened into the most beautiful umbrella-shaped blooms. They seemed to last forever in our cool climare (about six weeks, in fact) and finally turned a deep brown. Every day I inspected them, waiting for the seed to appear and ripen so I could shake it into a paper bag and collect my own carrot seed for the very first time.
This week, when I still couldn't see the seed, and was beginning to think that our very wet early summer must have put paid to pollination, I began to lose heart. Still, the flower was well spent so I snipped it off and carried it inside regardless. A few shakes into my paper bag and a lot of dry material fell off the head . 'Seed!' I said to myself but when I tipped the contents of the bag into a bowl, I couldn't see anything resembling carrot seed. All that was in the bowl was a pile of rather prickly looking crumbs – nasty burr-covered bits and pieces – the sort of things that you could easily spend days picking off your socks after a tramping trip.
It was the 'sock' image that finally made my poor brain go 'click'. Seed has to have some way of spreading – whether it's by wind (as with thistle down) or, in the case of tomatoes, through the faeces of whatever happens to eat them. And my carrot seed, bless them, were covered in burrs, ready to attach to whatever happened to be passing by when they fell to the ground!
Having made this 'brilliant discovery', I left the seeds on the window ledge to dry thoroughly, then rubbed them between my fingers. Off came the burs and there were what I (finally) recognised as the carrot seeds I usually tip out of a shop-bought packet.
As we move further into the 21st century, I suspect there will be more and more examples of 'life' we are unable to recognise. Whether it be the chlorinated 'salad' or soup vegetables stuffed into a plastic bag in the supermarket, or the cucumber encased in its vacuum packed plastic wrap, we are now moving about as far away from the natural world as it is possible to get. Which is all the more reason to collect your own seed – if, that is, you can recognise it!