Life’s Oldest Plants


I am sometimes thankful for my quirky tree-hugging bug-watching moss-enraptured tendencies through a life of biology-watching.

It makes for endless entertainment and cheap diversion, these natural objects that would seem disgusting or be invisible to most other eyes.

Case in point, the dry wad of globby-greenness from the sandy edge of the coastal NC road we walked along with the grand daughters yesterday. Others were embarassed by my interest in nothing apparent–a grown man down on his knees oohing and ahhing that way over something “yukky.”

How could they not share my admiration of Nostoc communes-a blue-green alga–in the Plant Kingdom as I learned it, now considered in its own group, the cyanobacteria. As primitive a creature as you can find. And you can find it everywhere if you recognize it in very wet and very dry places all around the world.

The very primitive organizms have no membrane-bound nucleus. Photosynthetic pigments but no chloroplasts. Able to take nitrogen from the air and convert it to a life-usable form. Leaps tall buildings in a single bound!

It looks more alive–in an eerie sort of way–after I put it in a mason-jar for this portrait.

Running out of time before we leave for home ahead of the next winter storm, so just one interesting factoid before I go:

This “plant” was commonly believed to have resulted from the remains of shooting stars (meteors), hence it acquired such names as star-jelly in Northamptonshire, star-slutch in Northamptonshire, and star-shot in Lincolnshire and Northamptonshire. The earliest of these names — sterre slyme (star-slime) — dates from 1440.

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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. You and I would do well on a walk together, Fred. I love finding stuff like that and always see the art of nature!

  2. As always, I read the spots off your biology watcher entries, and the links, too. Very fun stuff. I am impressed that you spotted this ugly stuff and recognized it.