Thorns and Roses

Something is odd about the thorns on roses. I noticed it when I was trimming the plants in the yard. To get at the inner twigs, I reached in and down, avoiding most of the barbs, snipped away, and began to withdraw my hand. Yow! The little meat-hooks, pointing down along the stems at various angles, grabbed hold of any bit of glove, shirt or skin that grazed them on the way up and out. I thought of those “Don’t Back Up” signs at entrances to parking lots guarded by spiked grates that lay flat when you drive forward but are otherwise aimed upwards towards any tire coming out.

Thorns of the rose
(Flickr)

The most common explanation for thorns is that they discourage plant-eating creatures from nibbling. Are rose thorns in particular any less efficient at this because of their angle down the stem, instead of straight out, like, say, cactus spines? It’s difficult to say. True, on an untrimmed, mature rose bush with stems growing in every direction, the thorns seem to deter a hand or animal mouth moving in any direction. Moreover, an animal poking its snout in for a nibble may get snagged as it withdraws and then intensify that pain dramatically as it struggles harder to pull back and escape.

But maybe these slightly backward thorns serve other purposes beside deterrence. The Wikipedia entry under “Rose” cites a different advantage up front: “Rose prickles [“Prickles” are the proper name for such thorns that grow from the skin of a stem; true “thorns” and “spines” are  sharp, modified leaves or stems sprouting from the woody core]…Rose prickles are typically sickle-shaped hooks, which aid the rose in hanging onto other vegetation when growing over it.” “Sickle-shaped hooks!” And “grappling hooks” as well.

A third factor in the rose thorn question is whether thorns and spines successfully deter caterpillars from climbing up to eat leaves and flowers. It seems that they do; at least, they slow them down, according to Christie Wilcox’ reporting on the work of entomologist Rupesh R. Kariyat in Zurich (“The Thorny Truth About Spine Evolution,” Quanta magazine June 14, 2017).  The current evidence suggests that while the first thorns and spikes “evolved against mammalian herbivores” a couple of hundred million years ago, many plants’ tissues gradually became toxic and repelled animals, while thorns stuck around (not intended) as the most effective defense against caterpillars.

Scientists agree that they have more to learn about thorns, spines, and prickles than they thought. Wilcox concludes that such under-research “illustrates our own species’ limitation and preconceptions. ‘When we go in the garden, we get cut by roses, so we perceive those thorns to be a defense against mammals,’ [British scientist Mick] Hanley said. ‘In almost every manifestation of understanding biology, we’re always putting our own human view on it.’”

Such biases may hold especially true for thorns and roses thanks to truisms about the pain that is said to accompany the search for beauty or love. The function of needle-sharp thorns in particular seems self-evident and unchanging. But the truer wisdom is that the capacities of hunters and hunted, seeker and sought, steadily evolve.

3.8 Poems: Charles Bukowski’s “Jam”

Charles Bukowski’s “Jam” details the miseries of a driver in clogged highway traffic. The experience sounds thoroughly familiar until the final image. The poem originally appeared in 1992 in Bukowski’s collection The Last Night of Earth Poems (Harper Collins).

Jam

that Harbor Freeway south through the downtown

area—I mean, it can simply become

unbelievable.

last Friday evening I was sitting there

motionless behind a wall of red taillights,

there wasn’t even first gear movement

as masses of exhaust fumes

greyed the evening air, engines overheated

and there was the smell of a clutch

burning out

somewhere—

it seemed to come from ahead of me—

from that long slow rise of freeway where

the cars were working

from first gear to neutral

again and again

and from neutral back to

first gear.

on the radio I heard the news

of that day

at least 6 times, I was

well versed in world

affairs.

the remainder of the stations played a

thin, sick music.

the classical stations refused to come in

clearly

and when they did

it was a stale repetition of standard and

tiresome works.

I turned the radio off.

a strange whirling began in my

head—it circled behind the forehead, clockwise, went past the ears and around to the

back of the head, then back to the forehead

and around

again.

I began to wonder, is this what happens

when one goes

mad?

I considered getting out of my car.

I was in the so-called fast

lane.

I could see myself out there

out of my car

leaning against the freeway divider,

arms folded.

then I would slide down to a sitting

position, putting my head between

my legs.

I stayed in the car, bit my tongue, turned

the radio back on, willed the whirling to

stop

as I wondered if any of the others had to

battle against their

compulsions

as I did?

then the car ahead of me

MOVED

a foot, 2 feet, 3 feet!

I shifted to first gear…

there was MOVEMENT!

then I was back in neutral

BUT

we had moved from 7 to

ten feet.

hearing the world news for the

7thtime,

it was still all bad

but all of us listening,

we could handle that too

because we knew

that there was nothing worse than

looking at

that same license plate

that same dumb head sticking up

from behind the headrest

in the car ahead of you

as time dissolved

as the temperature gauge leaned more

to the right

as the gas gauge leaned

more to the left

as we wondered

whose clutch was burning

out?

we were like some last, vast

final dinosaur

crawling feebly home somewhere,

somehow, maybe

to

die.