The plant kingdom exhibits an amazingly diverse array of innovations that have allowed our photosynthesizing friends to thrive all around the world. Here’s a quick look at some of the cool things plants can do!
1. Plants are natural pharmacologists
Did you know that the precursor of aspirin was originally derived from the perennial herb meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria)? People have been using plant extracts as medicine since antiquity, and the discoveries keep rolling in. One of the most potent anti-cancer agents in use today is paclitaxel, originally derived from the bark of the Pacific yew tree (Taxus brevifolia).
Figure 1. Left - Pacific yew tree branch. Top right - Peeling away the bark of the Pacific yew to harvest paclitaxel. Bottom right - Chemical structure of paclitaxel, a potent anti-cancer compound. Sources (left, top right, bottom right): By Jason Hollinger - Pacific Yew, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9693284, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1819583, By Calvero. - Selfmade with ChemDraw., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1703615.
2. Plant are masters of camouflage
You know what isn’t usually the target of herbivores? Rocks. To avoid being eaten, some members of the Aizoaceae family of succulent plants have evolved to look like rocks and pebbles. These “living stones” are native to southern Africa.
Figure 2. You might not even guess there were plants mixed in with these rocks, except for their telltale flowers. Source: By Stan Shebs, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3852692.
3. Plants can get wicked old
I’m talking real old. Welwitschia mirabilis, native to the deserts of Namibia and Angola are known to live up to 2000 years, and in all that time these plants only ever make two leaves that just elongate continuously.
Figure 3. One of the largest Welwitschia plants in the Namib desert Source: By Thomas Schoch - own work at http://www.retas.de/thomas/travel/namibia2003/index.html, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=650590.
Welwitschia are just youngsters compared to some Great Basin bristlecone pines (Pinus longaeva. These gnarly old timers are found in the high deserts of the California White Mountains, and the oldest recorded living individual is a staggering 5066 years old! This tree would have germinated sometime around when Sumerians first started using cuneiform, meaning it has been alive for pretty much all of recorded human history. The exact location of this tree, as well as those of several other ancient bristlecones, are actually kept secret to protect them.
Figure 4. One of the bristlecone pines in the high mountains of California. Source: By Dcrjsr - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11040152
4. Plants can smell like rotting meat
Would a rose by any other name not smell as sweet? Well roses and many other flowers do have a smell we and many pollinators like bees find attractive, but not all flowers are so pleasant. In fact, some are quite revolting. The aptly named “corpse flower”, or titan arum (Amorphophallus titanum) smells like it sounds - like rotting meat. Many plants use this strategy to attract insect pollinators that would find decaying flesh attractive, such as flies and carrion beetles. In addition to it’s notable fragrance, the titan arum also boasts the largest unbranched flower in the plant kingdom.
Figure 5 The titan arum in flower. Source: US Botanic Garden. - http://www.usbg.gov/your-visit/Titan-Day-1.cfmhttp://www.usbg.gov/images/july23at745am_lg.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3107340
5. Plants make the best of tough times
One of the downsides of being a plant is that it’s hard to get away when things turn nasty, like when you and all your plant-neighbors are burning down in a wildfire. However, as with many such extreme situations, plants have adapted. In regions where wildfire are common some hardy plants have even come to benefit from fire. For example, the longleaf pine (Pinus palustri) of the southeastern United States spends its early life in a short “grass stage” that is very tolerant of fire. The tightly packed needles protect the apical bud, and when the time is right, it goes through a growth spurt. Longleaf pines tend to form large open savannahs, tolerating surface fires where other species can’t take the heat. Other pine species, like the Aleppo pine (Pinus halepensis) of the Mediterranean, need a good roasting to get going - hot fires promote their seed germination.
Figure 6. Left - a longleaf pine savannah transitioning from the grass stage to canopy stage. Right - An Aleppo pine overlooks the coast. Sources (left, right): By Woodlot at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16465735, By spacebirdy CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35837681.
6. Plants can come back from the dead
Well, not exactly, but some of them sure can make a comeback from looking dead. A group of plant commonly referred to as “resurrection plants” can experience almost complete dryness and then rebound when watered again, sometimes even after weeks or months of drought. One such resurrection plant is the rose of Jericho (Selanginella lepidophylla), a native of the Chihuahuan Desert in the southern U.S. and northern Mexico.
Figure 7. Left - A fully dried resurrection plant can rehydrate in a matter of hours. Right - a fully hydrated and green resurrection plant. Sources: CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1513660,
7. Plants can hunt
I’m not talking about carnivorous plants like the venus fly trap here, I’m talking about plants hunting other plants. Parasitic plants like dodder (Cuscuta sp) can sense the chemicals given off by their targets and home in, growing spidery tendrils that eventually latch onto their prey! Once they take hold, these parasites leech nutrients from their hosts. While the nature of this interaction is fascinating to scientists, it is a headache for farmers. Dodder preys on many agricultural crops and is extremely difficult to eradicate from a field.
Figure 8. Dodder in flower, parasitizing a nearby host. Source: By Michael Becker - taken by Michael Becker, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=222697.
8. PLANTS MAKE THE OXYGEN WE BREATHE AND THE FOOD WE EAT
These green machines take in water, carbon dioxide, and light and photosynthesis themselves some sugars. A convenient byproduct of this process is oxygen, which is pretty important for us. Converting solar energy into calories also puts plants at the foundation of the Earth’s food chains.
Figure 9. Left - General schematic of photosynthesis. Right - Composite image showing the global distribution of photosynthesis, including both oceanic phytoplankton and terrestrial vegetation. Dark red and blue-green indicate regions of high photosynthetic activity in ocean and land respectively. Sources (left, right): By At09kg - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17219609, By Provided by the SeaWiFS Project, Goddard Space Flight Center and ORBIMAGE - http://oceancolor.gsfc.nasa.gov/SeaWiFS/BACKGROUND/Gallery/index.html and from en:Image:Seawifs global biosphere.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=387228.
I like to breath, and I like to eat, so I’m a big fan of plants and all the amazing things they do!
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