Getting the Joke


Some of you will remember a month or so ago when our six-year-old grand daughter, Abby, came to visit. She is like a sponge, soaking up the details of all the alien creatures and greenery she never sees on the South Dakota prairies back home. (She soaked up quite a bit of Goose Creek, too!)

And so her grandpappy did his best to enrich her time in woods and pasture by showing her little details that might interest her. Once, she highjacked this teacher-student relationship and showed me something new to science–a joke that, as most jokes do, requires a little background fact, then twists it in a new and unexpected way.

The image above is the very common Queen Anne’s Lace. On many of the flat-topped inflorescences, there is a central deep purple single flower. I don’t know that anyone knows why. (I once asked a very high authority in the botanical academic world why the dark central flower. “Heck if I know” was his disappointing answer.)

And so, I found such a flower and pointed it out to Abby. Then we did a little survey of the couple dozen plants nearby to see how many had and how many didn’t have the central dark flower.


A few days later, Abby came running from the edge of the woods. “Look, Dumpa!” She had “found” a specimen new to science.

I was amazed. (And more than a little amused.) She’d plucked a tiny Deptford Pink and stuck it in the center of a Queen Anne’s Lace. She’d created a visual joke, and the two of us knew why it was funny–a shared twist on nature that made us both laugh.

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. If it’s good enough for Darwin? From a googled “Experimental assessment of the functional morphology of inflorescences of Daucus carota (Apiaceae): testing the `fly catcher effect'”:

    “We speculate, following Darwin (1888), that the dark central floret may now be functionless and possibly represents a trait that has persisted long after its original function has been lost.”;jsessionid=1qbf0rup10gq.alice?format=bib

  2. As many times as I’ve seen the Queen’s Anne Lace in the ditches around my house, I’ve NEVER noticed the center flower! That’s wild… I want to check that out now.

    What a cute story. Sharp kid!

  3. Hey Fred! I hope you are getting more rain up there than we’ve gotten this summer in Morganton. A cute story! My grandmother also used to call them “Chigger Weed,” though I don’t think they would harbor chiggers any more than other weeds. I have heard a little folk story that the reddish black flower in the center of a mature Queen Anne’s Lace was a drop of blood from where a young maiden pricked her finger while sewing the delicate piece of lace for the royal queen.

  4. I lifted this from a university biology teaching site, and since it matches what my great grandmother once told me, it must be true:

    In lore, legend and life: Queen Anne’s Lace is said to have been named after Queen Anne of England, an expert lace maker. When she pricked her finger with a needle, a single drop of blood fell into the lace, thus the dark purple floret in the center of the flower.