Who among us has not come home, after a tour of the orchard or some field, with plants stuck in their socks?
Plants that take off with difficulty, like true Velcro; but, in this case, with the peculiarity that the spikelets –which carry the fruits and seeds– are easily dismantled, leaving many of them attached, and finally there is no other solution than to remove them one by one. This form of dispersion is called zoochory (from the Greek zoon = animal); and, if we limit ourselves only to the human being, it can be called more properly anthropochory (from the Greek anthropos = man).
In this way, plants take advantage of the movement of animals to expand their distribution area. The species of the genus setaria P. Beauv. are very well adapted to this form of dispersal. Its fruits are surrounded by more or less rigid and elongated fibers, covered with small thorns on their surface, which give them a rough touch and make them work like the tip of a harpoon; that is to say, they enter and stick easily but then come out with much greater difficulty.
Precisely the presence of those rigid fibers -which technically in Botany we call “mushrooms” (and not to be confused with the reproductive bodies of some fungi) – is what gives the genus its name setaria (“bearer of mushrooms”), and its ability to stick to hair or clothes is where one of the popular names of its species derives from: “sticky”. This genus belongs to the family Poaceae, also known as Gramineae, a term that some of the readers will find familiar because they are allergic to its pollen; Perhaps this is the botanical family that contains the most allergenic species, but it should not be forgotten that cereals, such as wheat, barley, rye, corn, rice, oats, etc., are the basis of our diet. and that of many domestic animals.
It is the first time that in this section we deal with a grass, so I think it is necessary that we talk about the typical flower, of this family. What have flowers? some will wonder.
Well yes, indeed, they have flowers; but they are so different from the rest of the flowers of other families, that they deserve a special mention. They lack showy petals and sepals, which is why it is sometimes difficult for us to even see them; However, the important thing about flowers is not so much that they are more or less showy, but rather that they guard and protect the reproductive organs of the plant –the stamens and the pistil–, from which the fruits will finally develop and within these, the seeds.
And, indeed, grasses also have all these structures. In many flowers, the reproductive organs are adorned with colored petals (and sometimes sepals as well) in case they are needed to attract insects for pollination; but when the wind is responsible for the dispersion of pollen (as occurs in grasses), the flowers no longer need to be adorned with bright colors, because this would mean a very large energy investment and they would not get any return on it. Interestingly, of the species that populate our planet, only humans and parasites are capable of spending energy without obtaining a profit; that is, foolishly.
But returning to the plants that concern us today, the reproductive organs of grasses are surrounded by two small protective leaves, barely showy, green in color that turns to straw when they mature and dry, and which are called lemma and palea; Well then, the set delimited by the lemma and the palea, together with the stamens and pistil that they enclose, constitutes a flower. In turn, one or several flowers come together to give rise to a structure at the base of which are arranged two other barely visible leaves of the same color, which are called glumes, giving rise to what we know as a spikelet. And it is the spikelet –really a set of flowers or inflorescence– that can be interpreted as the basic floral unit, almost always very inconspicuous, and it is the meeting of several spikelets that forms the typical spikes and panicles of wheat or oatmeal.
Now that we know the peculiar flowers of grasses, we must add that sometimes the spikelets are surrounded by several setae, or some floral pieces end in pointed and threadlike structures –the edges–, which are the ones that adhere to our socks or to animal hair, favoring the dispersion of the fruits.
The most common “sticky” in our territory are Setaria adhaerens (Forssk.) Chiov., S. verticillata (L.) P. Beauv. Y S. viridis (L.) P. Beauv.; three species very similar to each other, which produce dense and more or less elongated inflorescences, sometimes slightly curved or hanging, vaguely reminiscent of a fox’s tail and from which another of its popular names derives. From the point of view of ethnobotany, little can be said about these three species; but there is a fourth floor for traditional use, setaria italica (L.) P.Beauv., known as “minor millet”, which is a gluten-free cereal widely consumed in China and has also been cultivated in Europe –especially in Italy and Germany– for the manufacture of flour.
Although the cultivation of this last species has lost importance nowadays, in some Central Asian nomadic cultures its crushed fruits have been consumed since ancient times. And it is that on many occasions we seek to produce, through genetic engineering, new crop varieties, when sometimes we only have to review the customs of our ancestors to recover healthy foods, once highly appreciated and today disappeared from our diet.
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The “sticky” or “fox tails”: the species of the genus Setaria – Portada.info – Periódico digital de Villena y Comarca
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