Botanic Superlatives: The Most Imitated Plant

Botanic Superlatives: The Most Imitated Plant

March 18, 2011
Photo by: (L); (R)

What do NASA astronauts, new parents, and NBA phenoms have in common? They all owe a debt of gratitude to burdock (Arctium), whose hook-tipped burrs inspired the invention of Velcro®. Hailed as the revolutionary "zipperless zipper," the hook-and-loop fastener has been used to adhere artificial hearts, diving gear, and diapers. And it emulates a design that was refined and perfected by a certain thistle: burdock. 

In the wild, the adhesive mechanism is designed for seed dispersal. Burdock thistles attach themselves to unwitting passers-by, and the mature seeds tumble from the hooked vessel. In our manufactured world, burdock-inspired Velcro® is used on space suits and sneakers (readers of a certain generation will recall vintage three-strap Adidas and kangaROOS, with their handy Velcro® pouch). 

As anyone who's emerged from a forest stroll with a sleeve covered in burdock will agree, the wonderful story of Velcro®'s genesis is too familiar to be apocryphal. In 1941, Swiss engineer George de Mestral (1907-1990) encountered the plant while on a hunting trip in the Alps with his dog. Upon disentangling several burdock burrs from the dog's fur, the engineer became curious about their design. He took a closer look under a microscope, which revealed the many tiny hooks that easily bind to most organic textures (fabric, fur, skin et al.). Ah ha! De Mestral saw great potential in this simple fastening device as an alternative to the zipper.

While de Mestral's notion of burdock biomimicry would eventually sweep through textile designs of the 1970s and 80s, it took a while to get right. He spent about ten years consulting with weavers and engineers, and experimenting with various fabrication methods. A patent for Velcro® was granted in 1955. 

Today, according to Vecro® enthusiasts, there is a call for de Mestral's successor. While convenient and inexpensive, Velcro® has one problem: It is famously noisy. Engineers are rumored to be toiling away at the "holy grail" of silent Vecro®. It should be noted that the plant itself does not go quietly—so, perhaps we should instead wait for burdock to evolve a silence? After all, its design seems hard to improve on.