Turnips and Sundews: Making the best of a hard situation
Folktale: The Turnip
The Brothers Grimm tell about two brothers, one rich, one poor. The poor brother failed at everything he tried. For instance, when he planted turnips on his farm, only one seed grew! Actually it grew very well, and became so huge that it filled his wagon. Isn't that good luck?
No, the bigger a turnip gets, the more woody and bad-tasting. So he couldn't even eat it, let alone sell it to someone. More bad luck. His only harvest was useless.
However, he had heard that the local prince loved to collect odd things. Maybe he would enjoy the huge monster turnip. The poor brother presented it to the prince as a gift.
The prince was indeed impressed. "You must be a lucky man, to grow something so well!" Sadly, the poor brother explained his track record of failure.
"But surely your rich brother helps you?" asked the prince. With some embarrassment, the poor brother admitted that his rich brother had never given him anything at all.
The prince was angry to learn that one of his subjects was so heartless and selfish. "Don't worry, my man, I'll give you plenty -- in gratitude for this magnificent turnip you have given me for my collection." The prince gave the poor brother a country estate, fully furnished, with a staff of servants. The prince gave him outfits of fancy clothing, a stylish coach, and horses. He could live like a rich man!
Of course news of the (formerly) poor brother's good fortune quickly reached the rich brother. "Aha, if the prince gives him such riches in exchange for a mere turnip, just think what he'd give me in return for something really fabulous!" He spent his fortune hiring jewelers to construct a gorgeous statue of the prince, covered in gems. When it was ready, he put on his one remaining good suit and presented the statue to the prince.
The prince knew who he was. "Thank you, my man. This is indeed a lovely and unusual thing for my collection. How generous of you. In return, you deserve the most rare and prized item from my collection."
And the prince gave the rich brother... the huge turnip.
The poor brother could only grow one (huge) turnip on his worn-out farm, but he made the best of it. Sometimes in nature, plants and animal make the best of equally difficult situations -- in their own ingenious ways.
Sundews (Drosera species) live worldwide in places where nitrogen, an essential nutrient for growth, is difficult or impossible to get. Sometimes it's because the soil there is so acid and anaerobic that the nitrogen is not in an accessible form. In other places, the nitrogen supply is consumed by other plants that can compete more vigorously. What's a little sundew to do?
Sundews get their name from the glistening droplets of sweet, sticky juice on the ends of the long hairs that dot their leaves (see photo). Insects see and smell a tempting treat. But when they buzz in for a snack, they get stuck! Their struggles trigger a reaction: the leaf gently curls toward them, bringing more sticky hairs into contact with their victim. It's not as fast as the famous Venus Fly Trap, but faster than the bug can get away. Within minutes, the leaf hairs start producing digestive enzymes and acids. Yummy bug-juice drips down onto special absorption glands in the leaf surface. The plant gets its nitrogen from the proteins of its victims' bodies.
Oklahoma sundews pose no threat to humans, or indeed to anything much bigger than a fly. The specimens of Drosera brevifolia (dwarf sundew) that we saw in the Red Slough Wildlife Management Area are tiny -- they just look like a reddish patch on the dirt. We would never have spotted them without the help of an expert guide.
D. brevifolia makes the best of a hard lot, living on poor thin soil. Each spring, after the plants set seed with their little pink flowers, they die in summer heat and drought. But the seeds sprout in the fall, hang in through winter, and in spring do their best to grow -- thanks to their ingenious way of making the best of a hard situation.
Folktale: "The Turnip" is #146 in complete collections of Grimms' tales.