Ryan is lucky. He’s connected to nature. For as long as he remembers, his parents have arranged for him to celebrate his birthday at Audubon. He also comes when he can to Audubon’s Little Explorers’ program on the second Saturday of every month. And, he is in the second grade at Fletcher Elementary school in Jamestown, NY, where his teachers partner with naturalist Jeff Tome to offer place-based education throughout the school year. Based on the enthusiasm he shows at Audubon programs, I would guess his parents give him plenty of other opportunities to explore the natural world as well.
As a result of all this, Ryan is conditioned to love nature and to be curious about the things he encounters. At his most recent birthday party, he brought me a tight little ball of seeds from a tall plant that was growing next to the trail.
“What’s this,” he asked.
I gave him my standard short answer, the one that satisfies most seven-year olds. “Those are seeds from the Burdock plant.”
He kept looking into my face, waiting for more. So I went on… “If you look closely, you will see that the end of each seed has a little hook on it. When you – or an animal – brush by the plant, the hooks grab onto your jacket – or the animal’s fur.”
Still not fully satisfied, he waited to see if I had more to say, “Those seeds are little hitch-hikers. They use you – or an animal – to catch a ride to a new location. When the seed is eventually brushed off, perhaps it will land in a place where there is soil, water, and sun. Then a new Burdock plant will grow. Isn’t that clever, spreading your seeds by hitching a ride? Getting animals to plant you in a new garden?”
Ryan pondered this in silence for a moment while deciding to wear several Burdock seed clusters as adornments on his jacket and mittens. He started to move on down the trail. “Do you want to hear something interesting about Burdock?” I teased.
He stopped dead in his tracks and turned. “What?” he asked.
“The man who invented Velcro got his inspiration from Burdock.”
As we continued down the trail, Ryan marched and chanted, “Bur-dock, Bur-dock, Bur-dock…”
I realized as we walked on and I listened to Ryan’s chant that while I have been telling about Burdock being the inspiration for Velcro for at least 8 years – since the first time I heard another naturalist say it to a group – I really didn’t know the whole history. So, I looked it up!
In 1941, a Swiss man named George de Mestral took a hunting trip in the Alps with his dog. One day when he returned, he became curious about the burrs sticking to his clothes and his dog’s fur. As he looked at the hooks under a microscope, he wondered if he could use a similar structure to fasten other things together. After eight years of experimentation with various materials and techniques, he finally hit on something that would work. It would take another two years to find a way to mechanize the process. De Mestral applied for a patent in 1951 and received it in 1955. The name Velcro comes from two French words – velour (velvet) and crochet (hooks).
Velcro was not used widely until after the aerospace industry used it for astronaut suits and designers of ski clothing, seeing a similarity between astronaut suits and their winter gear began using it in their fashions. Over the years, hook and loop fasteners have turned into a multi-million dollar industry and are used in industry as well as fashion. George de Mestral died in 1990, so he never knew about his induction into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1999.
Just think, all that inspiration from a plant whose seeds are little hitchhikers. So, keep your eyes open, Ryan. Keep exploring and being curious about nature. Maybe something you see will inspire you to start a multi-million dollar industry… Maybe you, too, will be inducted into the Inventors Hall of Fame.
Bur-dock. Bur-dock. Bur-dock!