Gateway to the Classics: Plant Life in Field and Garden by Arabella B. Buckley
Plant Life in Field and Garden by  Arabella B. Buckley

The Story of a Turnip

The flowers of the Shepherd's Purse are very small, so we will get the flowers of another plant to help us to learn about them. If you can find, in the garden, a turnip plant that has run to seed, you will see that it has flowers very like those of the Shepherd's Purse, only they are larger, and yellow instead of white.

In both flowers there are four outer green leaves. These are called sepals.  They form the cup or calyx  of the flower. Then there are the four coloured leaves, which grow above the sepals. These are called petals.  They make the crown or corolla  of the flower. They are white in the Shepherd's Purse, and yellow in the Turnip flower. But in both flowers they stand in the form of a cross.

Next come six thin threads with little knobs on the top. Two of them are short, and four are long. These are called stamens.  The knobs are called anthers,  they are the dust-bags which hold the yellow dust or pollen.  Lastly, in the middle of the flower, is the seed-box or ovary.  In the Shepherd's Purse the ovary is shaped like a heart, in the Turnip flower it is a long pod.

The pods grow on little stalks down the stem. They once had flower-leaves round them. But these have withered away, and the pods have grown large.

Some of the best vegetables in your garden have flowers like these in the form of a cross, and with four long and two short stamens. Some, like the turnip and radish, have roots that are good to eat. In others, such as the cabbage and mustard-and-cress, we eat the leaves. In cauliflower and broccoli we eat the flowers.

Now let us go back to our turnip. What a splendid round root it has! You can find a kind of turnip growing wild in the lanes, but the root is hard—you would not like to eat it. Our turnips are good, because they have been grown in good ground, and had good food for hundreds of years, and only the best seeds are sown.

Now I daresay you think that, as we dig the ground and sow the seed, we ought to keep the turnip for ourselves. But there are a good many animals and insects which want their share. As soon as the turnip seed has sent up its first green leaves, a little beetle is there, ready to eat them. When its wings are closed it is not much bigger than the letter O  in the title of this lesson. It has long hind legs and can hop very far, so it is called the Turnip Flea-beetle.


Garden Turnip and Flea-beetle

In the winter these beetles sleep under the clods of earth, or under dead leaves. When spring comes they wake up, and feed on the Shepherd's Purse, or some other weed, which comes up early in the year. The mother flea-beetle lays her eggs under the leaves, and very soon the tiny maggots come out, and eat tunnels in them.

In a fortnight they are fat. Then they fall to the ground, and wrap themselves up in their cocoon skin, just as the baby ants did in the ant-hill. In another fortnight they become little beetles.

By that time the early turnips are just sending up their first leaves, and the flea-beetles will hop a long way to eat them. So, when you get up some morning, you may find the turnip bed very bare, and if you have sharp eyes you may catch the little black shiny beetles which have done the mischief. A whole field of swedes or yellow turnips may be eaten down in this way.

If you clear away all the weeds early in the year, and rake the ground, so that the young turnips grow quickly, you may keep the flea-beetle away. But then other creatures are wanting their share. The turnip-weevil will lay her egg in the root underground, as the nut-weevil did in the nut in the tree (see  Book I.). If you pull up a turnip with little lumps or galls  on it, you may know that a weevil maggot has been hatched inside.

Then, when the large turnip leaves have grown, the pretty orange saw-fly will leave her eggs in them, so that the maggots eat them all away. Then the rabbit, if he can get in, will eat the tops, while the mice will nibble at the root. Lastly, if you grow turnips for seed, the pretty little green flower-beetle wants his share, and he eats the flower-buds.

So you see the turnips feed many creatures besides the sheep and ourselves. A good gardener enjoys learning how to keep these garden thieves away.

Bring the flowers of wallflower, stock, candytuft, penny-cress, turnip-flower, and shepherd's purse, and notice their likeness in the form and arrangement of their parts.

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