Archive for the ‘Plant Behaviour’ Category

Planting a Clock That Tracks Hours by Flowers

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The Horologium Florae, or floral clock: “The professionals said it could not be done. They had never tried it, and they didn’t know any public garden that had tried it, and they wouldn’t recommend anyone else give it a try.”

“Flower opening has inspired many artists and seems of special emotional value to people,” write the sober scientists of the Journal of Experimental Botany. Support for their suggestion, writes Michael Tortorello in the NYT, rests in the sentimental British garden journals of the early 19th century, where the flower clock inspired some marvellously bad poetry:

Broad o’er its imbricated cup,

The goat’s-beard spreads its golden rays,

But shuts its cautious petals up,

Retreating from the noontide blaze.”

Now, readers of the Plant Intelligence Project will know that questions around the emotional value of plant behaviour, and of whether stuff like the above is bad poetry is are what I like to go on about (see my essay, whenever the eff it finally appears, on Shelley’s “The Sensitive Plant”).

But Tortorello’s article (thanks Brian Bacchus, for sending it to me) appears just a day after I finished reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s recent novel The Signature of All Things (Penguin, 2013), in which she keeps alive the idea of timekeeping flowers:

In her ninth summer, completely on her own, Alma learned to tell time by the opening and closing of flowers. At five o’clock in the morning, she noticed, the goatsbeard petals always unfolded. At six o’clock, the daisies and globeflowers opened. When the clock struck seven, the dandelions would bloom. At eight o’clock, it was the scarlet pimpernel’s turn. Nine o’clock: chickweed. Ten o’clock: meadow saffron. By eleven o’clock the process begins to reverse. . . . What Alma wanted to know most of all was how the world was regulated. What was the master clockwork behind everything? (p. 63)

Tortorello notes that “the poetry of the flower clock continues to grip the imagination.” He finds a few recent references but notes that “three authors do not make a trend.”

Gilbert makes four. And me, I suppose, makes five.

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Rapey Plant Stories and the Challenge to Darwinian Ideas About Gender

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I laughed when I first read that in late 18th-century Western Europe, people worried that studying botany, which focused the attention on all those plants fertilizing one another, was too racy a pursuit for proper young ladies. Now I think we have yet, even in the 21st century, to really grapple with how plant being challenges our basic assumptions about sexuality.

Do male plants rape females as a means of propagating the species? That’s the analogy that Dan Janzen used in 1977 when he applied Darwinian-based models of animal behaviour to plants.

Take a look at this thought-provoking article by Jeremy Yoder, postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Plant Biology at the University of Minnesota, who writes about how scientific theories of sexual selection, themselves originally based in human analogy, have ended up reframing not only stories of animal and human sexuality but also our understanding of plant reproduction.

Thanks to Eric Michael Johnson for passing this along.

The Most Versatile Impressionist In the Forest

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The Boquila vine shape-shifts itself to look like the leaves of whatever plant it is entwined with.

“Gianoli noticed that the leaves on one particular shrub seemed to be growing from two very different stems—one much thinner than the other. He eventually realised that the thin stems actually belonged to a Boquila vine, whose leaves were exactly the same as the shrub’s. He walked on and found Boquila entwined around many different trees; in most cases, its leaves matched those of its host. It looked like a mimic, and one with many guises.”

“This vine seems to mimic many specific models, depending on its host—something we’ve previously only seen in animals.”

Can Plants Think?

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This video by AsapScience, which does amazing things with whiteboard marker, offers an easily consumable summary of most of the research on plant communication: ethylene signalling, odour mimicking, tannin production, fungal network communication (the Wood Wide Web). Even corn that can hear!

“If you define intelligence, or thought, as the ability to solve problems, interact with an environment, or even work in groups, then plants are incredibly smart.”

A good resource to introduce the breadth of plant communication to learners.

Helping Forests to Flee?

There are few reasons why the whitebark pine has been declared an endangered species. But a warming climate is the worst threat, says this NYT article, and scientists are considering “moving” this population of trees from their home in the Rockies northward in order to save it. The idea is called “assisted migration,” and not all biologists are on board.

Our very idea of a “plant” suggests the inability to pick up and change locations in order to escape threat or find food. Certainly we have moved plants around the planet to suit our needs; we created our own categories of native and invasive species. When we start moving plants to conserve them, do those categories even matter anymore?

Vampire Plant ‘Sweet Talks’ to Victims While Sucking Out Vital Fluids

 

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Could predatory behaviour in plants engage in the same twisted emotional BS as human exploitation? One write-up of new research published in Science suggests that some manipulative whispering is going on when strangleweed gets in at the DNA/RNA level and “tells its victims how to grow.”

“At the same time, the parasite weed was also getting feedback on how things were going with the victim plant and somehow perhaps acted concerned, letting the Arabidopsis victim ‘know’ things such as ‘I feel your pain’ as creepy and unbelievable as that sounds.”

Strangleweed sounds like a real jerk.

Newsweek’s report on the same paper is a bit less provocative.

Here’s the actual Science paper. Enjoy!

Ottawa Event: Plant Intelligence – Rethinking Thinking – March 18

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Heads up Ottawa peeps. Canadian National Herbarium botanist Paul Sokoloff will be speaking about how dumb plants may not be on Tuesday March 18 at 7 pm at the Canadian #MuseumofNature. Check it out.