Weekly walk, October 20th

Pond from the north

Another day of lovely autumn weather, and maybe the last for 2015, since the forecast is for a lot of rain and wind tomorrow, and for some time thereafter.  Just hope it’s nice for Sunday when Ema is running her Secret Adventurers’ Hedgehog trail.

I didn’t notice any more fungi today, which might have been because the weather has been dry, but more likely that I was rushing, having given myself just 15 minutes.  Normally, going round, I switch into a very slow walk, to give myself the greatest possible chance just to notice things.  However, from last week, someone on iSpotnature.org had identified one of the fungi I photographed then as White Fibercap.  Definitely not one to eat.

But even without fungi, I was struck by the variations in leaf shapes within a single species, indeed the same plant.  The first was some holly, where some new growth, low down, had the expected very prickly shape, even though, having just emerged, it was actually very soft.  Meanwhile, high above, the leaves on the same tree were completely smooth, apart from the point at their ends.  For this there’s an immediate ecological explanation, since it’s only with lower leaves, which might be grazed by animals, where it pays the plant to make the leaves that complicated shape.

But dandelions? – which I also noticed, growing in deep shade on the forest floor, where the leaf shapes had hardly any of the tooth like shape, which I think gives them their name (tooth of lion, in some old form of French).  Elsewhere in the reserve I found another dandelion, with a more toothed shape to its leaves.  I have a feeling this might be to do with how old, or exposed the plants are, but why that should be I have no idea.

Something similar goes for ivy, where I noticed both the five lobed shape, and the unlobed shape which goes with the flowers, and which I associate with the ivy brought into my childhood home as a Christmas decoration.  Looking this up on Wikipedia, I see this latter form described as adult, but no explanation of why this should be.  Maybe with googling I could find some possible explanation, but in the past I’ve tried to find answers to similar ‘why’ questions – of the sort with which inquisitive, curious children can drive parents to distraction – and came to the conclusion that no one actually knows for sure.  Given the complexity of life, it’s not surprising that there are enormous numbers of unanswered questions, and that those where we do have answers are often just those where there’s an economic reason why someone would have paid to find out.

Further on, I also noticed a bizarre shaped growth – I guess a gall – on youngish oak tree whose branches stretched over the path round the pond.  Looking more, I noticed that the buds didn’t have the characteristic whiskers which are the sure fire tell for the Turkey Oaks, which so dominate our reserve.  The leaves were also rather more rounded, while Turkey Oak leaves are often more pointed.  Could it be that all this time I hadn’t realised this was a native oak?  Quite possible.  I looked further for signs of acorns, but couldn’t see any, which I guess will have something to do with the tree being relatively young, and its branches having not yet reached the canopy.  But why that should get in the way of it producing acorns is another ‘why’ question to which I can’t think of a plausible answer at the moment.

There really is so much science to discover.  I’m reminded of a conversation some years ago with my sister, a professional scientist (with a research interest in brassicas, an area where there is economic interest).  She mentioned in passing that the basic motivation for her as a scientist was to solve puzzles.  This came as a bit of a surprise to me, since I’d always thought of my subject, mathematics, as being about solving puzzles, and science as being about learning reams and reams of facts and theories. I guess it is, up to a point, but it would be nice to think that kids learning about nature appreciate that it’s a path to an area of science where their unanswerable ‘why’ questions are exactly what they should be asking – but in a spirit of understanding their parents’ limitations.

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