Swift - Image: Paweł Kuźniar, Wikimedia Commons.

Lucky heather? No, clover!

Swift - Image: Paweł Kuźniar, Wikimedia Commons.
Swift – Image: Paweł Kuźniar, Wikimedia Commons.

Work by Rebecca Tashiro et al. (Crop Science 50: 1260–1268, 2010), which identifies a gene that converts 3-leaved white clover (Trifolium repens) into 4-leafed versions, reminds me of comments by Anglo-Irish writer Jonathan Swift (1667–1745).

In his book Gulliver’s Travels he writes, ‘And he gave it for his opinion, that whoever could make two ears of corn, or two blades of grass, to grow upon a spot of ground where only one grew before, would deserve better of mankind, and do more essential service to his country, than the whole race of politicians put together’ (http://www.bartleby.com/100/211.html).

Sadly, one suspects in the trefoil situation that the same biomass is generated but spread over four lobes rather than three. But if four lobes can increase photosynthesis of the plant overall, then more sunlight – albeit in its fixed chemical form as sugar – might be extracted from the legume’s efforts. And thereby echo another of Swift’s far-sighted Lilliputian notions of ‘extracting sunbeams out of cucumbers’ (http://www.bartleby.com/100/211.html).

They do say that prescience is a virtue, and maybe a trawl through other ancient texts might reveal still more imaginative ways of easing widely predicted global future food shortages. Although we should probably stop short of adopting Swift’s ‘modest proposal’ of eating the children of the Irish poor (http://art-bin.com/art/omodest.html), which may not go down too well with modern-day audiences (and not just the vegetarians)!

Nigel Chaffey

I am a botanist and former Senior Lecturer in Botany at Bath Spa University (Bath, near Bristol, UK). As News Editor for the Annals of Botany I contributed the monthly Plant Cuttings column to that august international botanical organ - and to Botany One - for almost 10 years. I am now a freelance plant science communicator and Visiting Research Fellow at Bath Spa University. I continue to share my Cuttingsesque items - and appraisals of books with a plant focus - with a plant-curious audience. In that guise my main goal is to inform (hopefully, in an educational, and entertaining way) others about plants and plant-people interactions, and thereby improve humankind's botanical literacy. Happy to be contacted to discuss potential writing - or talking - projects and opportunities.
[ORCID: 0000-0002-4231-9082]

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