Spilling out of the hodge-podge of mail this week was the gardening magazine I cannot imagine ever dropping from my personal subscription list, Horticulture, and I was delighted but not surprised to see that this January-February issue was a true treasure, as always.
In fact, even if you never plan to subscribe to any gardening magazine, go buy yourself this copy, this week and every year. You’ll probably have to go to a bricks-and-mortar bookstore for specialty magazines, but it’s worth it.
There are four or five very special articles, a couple of which I will share with you in detail eventually. But I was delighted to see that Jeff Cox had one of his Science Matters columns. The title, Smarty Plants, reminds me of the title I usually give, erroneously, to a History Channel series, which my son laughingly reminds me is really named “Life Without People.”
But I always think it is “Plants are Smarter than People,” as this is a zero-population extravaganza that I got fascinated with, watching late at night with Kevin, when sports and politics and weather are not allowed. I once thought I’d get the DVD of it, but being a cheapskate at the time, I got an abbreviated form. “What you want,” he patiently explained, was the complete two-season set, which turned out to be six discs.
So that was what I bought myself for Christmas.
You don’t buy yourself a Christmas present? I always have. Perhaps a book I happened to see, a pretty scarf unlike some I was gifting others with, just a “happy.” And this year, being the “You can get everything from Amazon.com,” and quickly, I now have the whole thing.
Don’t know exactly how to work the DVD attachment - yet. But that will come. And after I spend the “fifth season” of a Mississippi winter absorbing it, maybe I can share some of it.
But back to Jeff Cox, who calls himself a science columnist, and seems to delight in finding people around the world who are studying the ways that plants, if not smarter than people, at least exhibit an awareness of plantlife changing features in scientific tests.
Plants may not have brains as people think of the thinking and reasoning apparatus, but they do have an ability to learn from various experiments. We think we study about plants, what they need to grow, where they like to be situated. In other words, they learn, on their own, in an amazing number of situations.
At the University of Florence in Italy, Dr. Monica Gagliano chose to work with Mimosa pudica, popularly known as the sensitive plant, which by its nature droops and folds its leaves when touched. To test whether a particular plant can be taught to change its behavior, the Italian group dropped the plants from a six-inch height into cushiony foam, which prompts the folding response but doesn’t injure the plants.
After repeated falls with no harm, the plants stopped folding their leaves when dropped. They seemed to remember that being dropped into foam can be safely ignored. Of course I assume that another set of plants would have to learn it on their own.
Another experiment, this one at the University of California, at the Davis campus, deals with the plant equivalent of jet lag in humans.
For instance, specific plants from the group that exhibits heliotropism, such as sunflowers that turn their flower heads to follow the sun across the sky - show better growth and development than specimens of the same plant group that are prevented from following the sun.
The UC/Davis group further asked themselves, how do the sunflowers growing in the open, return to face east to wait for sunrise, and to begin the process all over again tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow?
They discovered that unimpeded sunflowers (such as we might grow in the open spaces in our vegetable patch) have genes that control growth. At night, genes stimulate growth on the west side of the stems only, forcing their heads to turn back to the east.
This shows that the sunflowers are coordinating light signals, along with their circadian clocks and genetically driven growth rates on different sides of the stems. They may not have brains, as we people define brains, but they at least have smarts.
The entire article is filled with examples, based on research now going on not only in California but also Israel and Oxford, and at one German university (which demonstrates that some plants can count).
If you enjoy this sort of research, always read what fascinates Jeff Cox enough to write about.
But there is much more in this one magazine, and the next feature I’m really poring over is another in the series by editor Meghan Schinn, about special delights at the great botanical gardens all over the United States.