yellow rocket defined in 1912 yearyellow rocket - YELLOW ROCKET (Barbarea vulgaris);
yellow rocket - If it be true, as has been said, that the first conscious pleasure about wild flowers is to find out their names - they do not become personalities to us until then - then the yellow Crucifers are truly traps for the unwary and the highway to despair. At the outset their name is legion. There is the wild radish; the mustards, wild, black, white and hoary; the wild cabbage, rape, navew; the sand and wall rockets; the hedge mustards, common and treacle; the tower mustard; the yellow cresses and gold of pleasure, and many other species, and they are all members of the same family, all with strongly marked family traits, most of them loving waste places, many of them with leaves which vary in shape on the same plant, and all with yellow flowers collected into spikes - buds at the top. To read out the description of one is apparently to read out the description of almost any one of them. Mr. Bentham in his "British Flora" strikes terror into the novice field-botanist when he begins a description of the Cruciferæ family by the remark that it is "absolutely necessary in order to name a Crucifer to have the specimen in fruit, and to examine the seed; it must be ripe; it should then be soaked and the outer coating carefully taken off, in order to lay bare the embryo, and observe the position of the radicle on the cotyledons." By what possibility, then, the tyro wonders hopelessly, can he identify the flowering plant for the fruits are not yet even in existence!
The plant figured here - the Yellow Rocket, Barbarea vulgaris - is one of the tribe and one of the most perplexing in it. Even botanists themselves have not agreed whether or no to class it with the hedge mustards (Sisymbrium). Now, however, they generally put it in a little class of its own, and remark that it is a very small genus which is apt to show itself under five forms. The distinction they draw is worth noting; it sounds to the ordinary person so very much a splitting of hairs. Barbarea, they say, has the radicle "accumbent on the edge of the cotyledons" and not, as have the hedge mustards, the radicle "incumbent on the back of one of them." As the vast majority of people have not even a bowing acquaintance with the minute internal arrangements of the seed - the seed in this case being itself a by-word for insignificance - it is to be feared that the Yellow Rocket and the hedge mustards will continue to be mixed up in ordinary folk's minds.
In the early summer-time its bright yellow spikes of small flowers frequent hedgebanks, waste places, and the margins of streams. They rise stiffly among the herbage, a foot to two feet high. They are at their gayest towards the end of May, but they may be found in earlier stages even in April. Down by the root is a rosette of leaves which are remarkable for having one large end lobe and many side leaflets. By the time the plant is in flower these have usually had their day and are yellow and dying. The leaves higher up the stem vary somewhat from these in having fewer segments, while the upper leaves are quite lyre-shaped, with perhaps only one or two pairs of lateral leaflets below the large main blade. Down by the main stalk they wrap round it with two arrowhead shaped ears. They are deep green in colour and usually quite smooth and shining. The juices within the leaves are somewhat pungent and bitter, and since the leaves can be found throughout the greater part of the winter, they have had some repute in the past as a salad under the name of "Winter Cress." Indeed the plant has even been cultivated in gardens for the purpose, but it is very acrid, and could only have been used when nothing more palatable could be got; horses and sheep even will have none of it, though it is said that cows will eat it.
The little yellow flowers, scarcely a quarter of an inch across, gain their attractiveness by being massed, some fifty or sixty together, in a large spike. As is the rule in the Crucifers, there are four sepals, all separate, and four petals, each with a claw, arranged cross-wise. Inside the petals and standing round the long ovary are six stamens, two short, and four long. No column stands on the ovary as is usually the case, its own length is sufficient to raise a receptive surface for pollen. Inside two rows of seeds-to-be lie.
The flowers at the bottom of the spike open first, and the blossoming creeps upwards from base to tip, the sepals and petals falling off the fading flowers, and the bare green ovary rapidly growing in length. Finally one gets a long spike, some 6 to 8 inches long, of thin green pods, with perhaps a few small yellow buds at the very tip of the spike. At this stage one might, at a little distance, almost mistake it for a young horse-tail (Equisetum), for half a hundred or more pods stand stiffly up, an inch or so long, almost parallel to the main stem.
When ripe the sides of the pods split upwards, hinging at the tip and disclosing a thin membrane dividing the pod into two chambers. For a short time the yellow-brown seeds within remain hanging, then they fall out, and are scattered around as the wind rustles through them.
The Latin name Barbarea enshrines the fact that the plant was dedicated to St. Barbara, and indeed was known as "Herb St. Barbara," probably because it came into use as a salad about St. Barbara's Day, December 4th, but perhaps, too, our forefathers saw in the tall, yellow spikes something that recalled to them the beautiful Christian maiden who dwelt in a tower and became the protectress against lightning and the patroness of firearms.
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