Hitchhikers

By Larry Rettig (LarryR) on October 20, 2011

Replacing zippers or buttons on clothing. Fastening shoe straps. Mounting a smoke detector on a wall or ceiling. Securing cushions to outdoor furniture. Hanging signs. This is but a small sampling of the 101 uses of Velcro. No doubt about it, Velcro has taken the world by storm.

2011-10-20/LarryR/228eab

 

ave you ever wondered where Velcro comes from?  And who invented it?  We have an engineer to thank for this marvelous invention.  His name is George de Mestral (June 19, 1907 – February 8, 1990) originally from Saint-Saphorin-sur-Morges, Switzerland.  He began work on it in 1941, experimenting with various materials to make Velcro as durable as possible.

Cotton proved much too fragile for the applications de Mestral had in mind.  Eventually, he settled on nylon, a synthetic fiber that had only recently been invented.  Not only did it prove to be durable, but de Mestral discovered that if he created nylon pile under infrared light, it would form loops that were perfect for the loop side of Velcro’s dichotomous nature.  After further trial and error, he came up with a solution for creating Velcro’s hook counterpart.  He simply cut off the tops of some loops and, voilà, hooks!

The task of mechanizing the manufacturing process took de Mestral ten long years.  Finally, in 1951, he submitted his idea for patenting in Switzerland.  It took another four years before the patent was granted.  Within the next few years, Germany, Great Britain, Sweden, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Canada all granted him a patent, and he opened manufacturing and sales facilities in those countries.  Velcro reached the U.S. in 1957, when de Mestral opened facilities in Manchester, New Hampshire, at that time the textile center of the country.

In time, Velcro became part of the American socio-industrial fabric, achieving the status of what only a few other products such as Kleenex and Frigidaire have become:  a brand name that has morphed into a generic term for a type of product.

Our society has become increasingly creative in its use of Velcro.  The aerospace industry has used it to help its astronauts climb into and out of complicated and bulky space suits.  One of the most creative uses to date has been a game called “Velcro jumping.”  Participants wear suits covered in one part of the Velcro and, taking a running jump, throw themselves at a wall covered with the other part.  The object is to see who can stick to the wall the highest off the ground.

Surely, you must be wondering at this point what place all this talk about Velcro has in an article that's supposed to be about plants.  Take another look at the drop-cap "H" at the beginning of this article.  Still puzzled?  It’s actually quite simple.  Back in 1941, Mr. de Mestral was out in the Alps on a hunting trip with his dogs.  They encountered patches of burdock, whose seed pods (burrs) clung to his dogs’ fur and to his clothes.

Curious about the manner in which these seed pods hitched rides on man and beast, he took some home and examined them under a microscope.  What he saw was a mass of “hooks” that caught on anything with a loop, which included clothing and animal fur.  The binding was reversible, so if one pulled hard enough on the burr, it came off.  Being an engineer, he thought he might be able to figure out how to duplicate this phenomenon with manmade materials.  And the rest, as you have seen, is history. 

Burdock
 

Burdock (Arcticum ssp.) is a biennial that produces a rosette of leaves the first year from seed.  The second year it blooms, produces seed, and then dies.  It’s native to Europe but, as is the case with so many other weed species, it eventually found its way to our shores.  A member of the daisy family, it grows to a height of about three feet with wavy green leaves that are heart-shaped.  It has purple flowers that bloom from June to as late as October and can be found in every state except Florida.  Practitioners of folk medicine use burdock as a blood cleanser, arthritis pain reducer, and in treating acne, eczema, gout, psoriasis, rheumatism, and ulcers. In Russia and India, it has also been used to treat cancer.

Another common burr this time of year is often referred to as Tickseed or Beggar Ticks (Bidens ssp.).  In my neck of the woods these burrs are known as Beggar’s Lice.  Like burdock, they have been used in folk medicine for centuries to treat angina, high blood pressure, conjunctivitis, diabetes, diarrhea, fever, food poisoning, and many other ailments.  Beggar's Lice has conquered the entire North American continent and is found in Hawaii as well. 

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Beggar's Lice
Blossoms and seed heads

 

I spent most of my childhood in the hills, fields, and streams that encircle my village here in Iowa.  I remember coming home many a fall day with Beggar’s Lice all over my socks and pants.  The flat seeds with two hooked prongs protruding from them were difficult to remove, and the prongs would often remain stuck in the clothing I was wearing, causing an irritating and itchy scratch on my legs and ankles.

Many years later, as an adult, I was driving along a local road when I came upon an entire field of golden yellow daisy flowers with large but delicate, almost ferny leaves.  The two-foot tall plants swayed in the breeze, its flowers rippling in waves.  I was captivated.  I swore that I had never seen this plant before, but wondered how I had missed it all these years.

2011-10-20/LarryR/f53d7f
Beggar's Lice hitching a ride
All images are courtesy of
wikipedia.org and are used under the
terms of the GNU Free Documentation
License.
 

I absolutely had to have the plant, so I went home, got a shovel and a bucket and dug some up.  They suffered very little transplant shock and were almost as enchanting in my flower beds as they had been in the field.  As I was cleaning up some of my beds that fall, I felt a puzzling, yet vaguely familiar, itchy scratch on my right arm.  I looked down to find my entire shirt sleeve covered in Beggar’s Lice!   I had been enticed by the plant’s beauty, unwittingly spreading its seed all over my beds!

That incident was almost enough to convince me that plants are capable of stealthy, scheming behavior in order to get their seeds distributed as widely as possible.  If, indeed, plants are somewhat sentient, I bet that burdock is having a good chuckle over the fact that it has turned humans into burrs who deliberatly get themselves stuck on a wall.  Its legacy has come full circle.

So, when you go hiking or hunting in fields and woods this fall, and you bring home some burry seeds that have hitched a ride, thank them.  For they have brought us healing and Velcro.

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About Larry Rettig
"An enthusiastic gardener for over 50 years, my first plant was a potted Ponderosa Lemon tree ordered from a comic book ad at age 15. I still have it, and it’s still bearing lemons! My wife and I garden on 3/4 of an acre, both flowers and vegetables. Our garden, named Cottage-in-the-Meadow Gardens, is private and is listed with the Smithsonian Institution in its Archives of American Gardens. It is also on the National Register of Historic Places. We garden organically and no-till. Our vegetable garden contains a seed bank of vegetables brought to this country from Germany in the mid-1800s by my ancestors. My latest book, Gardening the Amana Way, is available at Amazon.com.

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Comments and discussion:
Subject Thread Starter Last Reply Replies
Fascinating! :) Boopaints Oct 24, 2011 10:44 AM 8
O.K. Larry Ridesredmule Oct 22, 2011 11:34 AM 9
Untitled nap Oct 21, 2011 6:36 PM 4

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