Tuesday, July 19, 2011

July's Prairie Flowers as Design Inspiration

Today was a beautiful sunny day for a bike ride through the Springbrook Prairie Forest Preserve.  It was hot today.  Very hot.  But the flowers in the prairie were in full bloom, and I was curious about the plants I found there.  What are their names?  Where do they grow and why?  Is there anything we can we learn from them that could influence design?  To try and answer these questions, I took a collection (which doubles as an interesting wildflower arrangement) and have attempted to classify a few of the flowers I picked.  I did a little research on the natural history of each and then have extrapolated a few questions as to how each plant may inspire design.  What questions do you think the plant could help us answer?  

Aster (Daisy) family (Asteraceae)
Natural History:  This plant, while native to Illinois, is not that common in native habitats.  In fact, most of the plants that grow in the wild are escaped cultivars or as a result of prairie restoration efforts.  On my ride, there were only small clusters or small groups of individuals but I was determined to collect a few for my daughter, who loves pink flowers.  It has only a faint smell.  The stem is strong and rigid and the seed head is heavy.  The petals are smooth on top, rough on bottom, and damaged with black spots from insect or impact damage.  The top of the flower head is a collection of small spines, which is why it was named after the latin name for "hedgehog."  The spines are packed closely in the Fibonacci spiral formation, which allows for radiating growth.  

Biomimicry Inspiration:  I wonder what a seating arrangement in a restaurant, theater in the round, or other establishment where many people must be placed would look like if we tried to emulate this radiating pattern?  Would its allowance for growth allow the seating arrangement to grow and contract as needed depending on how many people need to be seated?  Would this pattern be relevant to temporary disaster shelter camps as well?  

Umbellifer family (Apiaceae)
Natural History:  I grew up in Southern Illinois and was not as familiar with this plant as my husband, who grew up near Chicago and said this plant was growing everywhere near his childhood home.  It is not native to this area, but has become naturalized and bares a striking resemblance to poison hemlock.  If you are certain that it is not hemlock, wild carrot's root is edible to consume and a teaspoon of crushed seeds has been used as a folk remedy for birth control because of the plant's estrogenic properties.  It is also a beneficial weed and used as companion plant to attract beneficial insects, boost tomato yield, or as shade for lettuce.  As is its cousin, dill, to which it bears a remarkable resemblance.  I am going to remember that for next year!  At the end of the growing season, the seed head at top breaks off and becomes a tumbleweed, spreading its seed where the wind takes it.  

Biomimicry Inspiration:  I would love to know more about the chemical properties of companion plants that cause increased yield as this could be very beneficial to the agriculture industry.  Wouldn't it be wonderful if industrialized agriculture could move beyond mined phosphorus and synthetic fossil fuel fertilizers in favor of water-based chemistry that emulates the chemical properties of a crop's natural companion?  I am also intrigued by how the structure of the large scale flower is similar if not identical to the structure of each of its florettes.  What you see when looking at the details is similar to what you see when looking at the big picture.  This could serve as inspiration for modular components comprising a larger whole.  

Milkweed family (Asclepiadaceae)
Natural History:  I almost didn't get a sample of this plant because every one I saw was literally covered in bees and butterflies.  In fact, planting this plant in your garden will attract the Monarch butterfly as it is the preferred food for its caterpillar.  The plant stands tall and erect, drawing much attention to itself when compared to the surrounding flora.  But when I went to break off a flower head, it was very obvious how the plant got its name.  The sap, which resembles very sticky white Elmer's glue flows freely from the stem and makes your hands quite sticky for some time.  It must not taste good either, as mammals avoid this plant.

Biomimicry Inspiration:  What are the chemical properties of the sap?  What it is that mammals find distasteful to eat and would this information be relevant to chemical companies selling products to keep deer and other mammals away from gardens?  What are the chemical properties that make this water-based substance so sticky and would it be relevant to designers of glues and adhesives?  When the sap dries, it isn't as sticky anymore.  What are potential applications for temporary adhesives?  

I classified a few more flowers after my bike ride, but it is not always easy to find enough natural history information about a plant in order to extrapolate their function, which is necessary in the practice of biomimicry.  I hope to continue to look to the prairie and the great lakes, one day in partnership with our local research institutions, to further our natural history knowledge of local flora and fauna and understand how our native organisms and ecosystems function.   This knowledge will allow us to design products and places that are truly attuned to our local region.

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