George de Mestral stuck with it.
For more than seven years, he worked on developing a material that “would rival the zipper in its ability to fasten.” Clearly, he was a stickler for perfection, though not more so than Mother Nature, which provided the inspiration for his invention.
We have all benefitted from the Swiss naturalist’s determination and excellent observation skills. He developed Velcro after a walk with his dog that left them both covered in burs. Although many thought his idea strange, he had the last laugh when his creation made him millions.
Burs (sometimes spelled “burrs”) are the plant seed sacks that have hooks which attach themselves to passing animals in the hope of distributing their seeds far and wide. Anyone who has been in this sticky situation and then tried to remove burs from their clothes or pets can understand why this method of seed movement is so successful.
Many have experienced the hellishness of these hooks, though some are more disturbed by them than others. In Shakespeare’s As You Like It, both Celia and Rosalind encountered burs. Celia noted, “They are but burs, cousin, thrown upon thee in holiday foolery; if we walk not in the trodden paths our very petticoats will catch them.” Rosalind clearly had larger concerns when she replied, “I could shake them off my coat; these burs are in my heart.” Her pain was deeper than the piercing plant.
The most common burs that you will encounter around these parts are from the plants common burdock and cocklebur. Cockleburs have one-inch football-shaped burs, while common burdock’s burs are rounder and more hooked. These plants are just two that have those clasping claws. Other plants that could get stuck on you (whether it’s Valentine’s Day or not) include bur clover, teasel, and beggar’s tick, though these are not the only bristly botanicals to get attached.
Removing burs could make anyone go mad. It is no wonder that burdock is also called cuckoo-button.
What is even crazier is the ability of burs to harm and even kill. In a 1998 Science News article by J. Raloff, a few hummingbirds got themselves into a prickly predicament. Raloff relates that common burdock was responsible for the death of four ruby-throated hummingbirds. They became entangled in clusters of burdock fruits, which can reach heights of six feet. Though he goes on to say that one of the birds was rescued, the others perished on the plants, unable to fly away and getting more tangled as they struggled.
Death by bur is, luckily, uncommon, but burs do provide a prolonged prickly predicament for those trying to break their hold. I have heard that there is only one surefire, quick and easy technique for dealing with their exasperating grasp, though it goes against my eco-sense. Throw out those socks.
Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.