During the super moon this past summer, Sid and I took a weekend trip to the small town of Julian, about an hour and a half north of San Diego. We stayed at the Pine Hill Lodge, a secluded retreat set up above the city and back into the forest.
After a lazy afternoon nap, I woke up to a stunning view of the woods from our patio and said to Sid, in awe: “Think about it – aside from us and the other patrons, it’s a jungle out there. In less than a hundred square yards I bet I could find over a hundred different plant species, all of them vastly different. Some, like those, are oaks hundreds of years old. Some are ephemeral and bloom for less than two weeks. Some are tubers, others vines. Some are poisonous, some edible. And all of them manage to live in peace with one another. And we think we’re the higher life forms.”
Used to this sort of philosophical rambling, he nodded politely and suggested I take a hike (literally, thank goodness). But the fact remains: what has always drawn me to plants is their remarkable ability to be both endlessly complex and staggeringly simple at the same time. Plant precursors were swimming in the primordial soup billions of years ago, and the redwoods stood long before man was around to marvel at their grandeur. In a lot of ways, I view plants as the more advanced form of life. And while Homo sapiens have the ability to speak, think and be mobile (although some plants do also move, travel and make noise), it’s not these similarities that make them amazing. It’s all the ways in which plants have already accomplished what our species has yet to even understand. So, in today’s post, I’d like to elucidate on some of the more humbling accomplishments of our friends from the kingdom Plantae.
Leaves of Canna ‘Cleopatra’, a chimera that exhibits variable flower and foliage colors.
• Chimeras In Greek myth, a chimera is a creature with the head of both a lion and a goat, with a snake for a tail. Scientifically, the term has come to represent an organism composed of genetic material from two or more distinct sources. While chimeras do occur throughout the animal kingdom (including in humans), these instances are rare. In plants, however, chimeras are more common and quite striking in appearance.
• Cloning While cloning has been demonstrated in a number of animal species and is feasible in humans, plants often produce clones of themselves with no trouble at all. In fact, many plants reproduce in this way much more readily than through seed. Succulents, for example, produce prolific clones of themselves called ‘pups.’ What’s more, a cutting taken from almost any plant can be rooted to create an identical copy. Many cultivars must be propagated through this technique alone, as their seed does not breed true. It’s cloning you can do in your home!
• Regeneration Few organisms on Earth are capable of extensive regeneration – seastars and newts among them – but almost all plants readily regenerate thanks to the presence of meristems. A meristem is a cluster of cells capable of differentiating into various plant parts, from leaves to flowers to roots. Think of them as permanent stem cells that are active throughout the plant’s entire life. In addition, a plant cut down to the base will regrow as vigorous as ever thanks to latent and epicormic buds.
A Euphorbia ‘Tiny Tim’ that has become crested.
• Mutation Most mutations in humans are non-fatal and go unnoticed. In plants, however, mutations can result in strange and sometimes beautiful new forms. These forms happen often enough and are striking enough that there are technical terms for their occurance: peloric, cristate and monstrous among them. It should be noted that these abnormalities can have causes that are not genetic in nature, such as hormonal, viral or environmental.
• Grafting Grafting is the process whereby a cutting of a mature plant is grafted onto the stem of another. Much like cloning, grafting ensures the characteristics of the new plant will be identical to that of its parents. In addition, it allows for the selection of certain rootstocks, which may confer disease-resistance, drought tolerance or even dwarfing. Almost all commercial fruits and quite a few Christmas trees are produced in this manner. Tissue and bone grafting is possible in humans, but the sort of grafting seen in plants would be akin to joining one man’s torso with another man’s legs.
A ‘Medley’ lilac bush exhibits an unusual white bloom called a bud sport.
• Photosynthesis Without a doubt, the autotrophic capabilities of plants are their most distinctive feature. Humans are heterotrophs, which means we are incapable of producing our own food. Instead, we operate as consumers at various trophic levels, eating plants, herbivores and carnivores (depending on your preferences). Being a secondary or tertiary consumer means we are receiving only around 0.001% of the sun’s energy when we eat another animal. This means that plants are able to utilize as much as 1000 times more of the sun’s energy than humans are. It follows, then, that consuming a mostly plant-based diet puts us that much closer to the source.
• Hybridization While movies like Planet of the Apes reflect a sense of unease surrounding the concept of human hybrids, science has never produced a human-chimpanzee hybrid, despite multiple attempts. Hybridization is much more common amongst other animals – take, for example, a liger or a zorse – but almost always results in sterile offspring. Plants, on the other hand, hybridize readily and produce, more often than not, fertile offspring. Hybridization is responsible for the size and taste of most modern crops, as well as the endless varieties of ornamental annuals and perennials.