Image: Wikimedia Commons.

MPs fiddle with Nature…

Were UK MPs wrong for employing gardener to remove autumn leaves by hand from lime trees in New Palace Yard?

Image: Wikimedia Commons.
Image: Wikimedia Commons.

In a so-called democracy, such as the United Kingdom (UK), the power to decide what is best for the majority is delegated to a few worthy individuals, the Members of Parliament (MPs). But how knowledgeable are those MPs, and therefore how fit are they to tell the rest of the population what is good for us? Indeed, is the country/world safe in the hands of such people? It is not my intention to provide a definitive answer to that question (that is most definitely what Mr P. Cuttings is not about!). Instead, I will share a story with you that might help you to make up your own minds…

As the autumn of 2014 was in full swing and the lanes of merry England were elsewhere turning leafy as leaves fell from the trees, a gardener – employed by the UK’s MPs – was observed removing leaves by hand from lime trees in New Palace Yard (below the clock tower that houses Big Ben near the UK’s Houses of Parliament). Understandably there was outrage in the media of that green and pleasant land over the waste of money involved in this seemingly unnecessary activity (e.g. in The Telegraph and the Daily Mail).

Now, I don’t know much about the finer details of the senescence (a ‘phase of development that is a transdifferentiation episode following the completion of growth, which may or may not be succeeded by death, but which is absolutely dependent on cell viability and the expression of specific genes’) of leaves, or of the process of leaf fall – abscission (in which process leaves are periodically shed from plants such as trees in the autumn) –  but I do understand that picking leaves before they’re ‘ripe’ has a number of consequences, and concern over any waste of money seems to be least of our worries.

For instance, their premature removal prevents resorption of important materials such as nitrogen – the supply of which macronutrient from the environment is frequently implicated in limiting plant growth – from the senescing leaves back into the body of the plant. Plus, by preventing the leaves from falling to the ground they will not undergo decomposition, thereby preventing the release of further important nutrients back into the environment where they would continue to support life by flowing within biogeochemical cycles.

Furthermore, removing leaves from the trees before they have had time to develop the abscission zone potentially opens up the plant to entry of harmful agents such as fungibacteria and viruses. And the soil, its plant roots and other inhabitants are deprived of the insulating properties that a carpet of leaves would provide.  Although this benefit would only last until the leaves are decomposed or removed, it is conceivable that this layer would probably keep the subphyllous habitat just that little bit warmer for longer, for whatever biological purposes might benefit thereby and therefrom. [Mr P. Cuttings realises that he’s going out on a bit of a limb here, but just because nobody else may have heard of this, doesn’t mean that it might not be important or ecologically relevant – Ed.]

Whilst it has come to light that the trees were effectively being pruned and not simply stripped of their leaves, the result is the same – leaves from the tree ‘untimely ripped’, and the knock-on effects noted above still apply. So, if MPs can’t be trusted not to interfere with some of the most basic processes of nature, can we trust them at all?

Hmmm, something to ponder as we await the return of spring (assuredly) and of the leaves (hopefully!) to London and the rest of that democratised nation.

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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