Thursday, November 10, 2011

Prolific Plants

Boy meets girl.  Since the beginning of time, this story has fueled lyrics in every language, marketed clothing trends, sparked a war or two, and made Disney an empire.  It’s a tale of attraction and commitment and it’s a story we never tire of hearing.  Plants, too, have an insatiable appetite for romance.

Flowers, in all their glory, are simply looking for a date.  The nectar, the petals, the fragrance, they’re not for us.  No, the real catch is a matchmaker (also known as a pollinator).  Plants, being rooted in the ground as they are, find it difficult to get out into the dating scene.  They must rely on birds and insects to make their love connections.  A flutter here, a wiggle there, bada bing, bada boom: pollen meets stigma.  Before you know it, there's a baby (fruit) on the way.  Everytime you slice a tomato, slurp a watermelon or crunch on an apple, remember: a little romance made this deliciousness possible. 

And while romance blossoms all over the garden, plants don't rely solely upon love connections for re-creation.  In fact, plants are like the gymnasts of the reproductive world.  They would win the Reproductive Olympics, if there were such a thing.  Consider one superstar: Hemerocallis a.k.a. Daylilies.  In addition to their romance-based seedheads, Daylilies spontaneously generate divisions (new plants developing at the root level) and proliferations (new plants developing on the flower scapes).   

These are examples of asexual propagation.  I can boil those eight syllables down to one:  “clone”.  There are several benefits of asexual propagation.  It removes the dependence upon pollinators, and allows the plant to spread autonomously.  Gardeners benefit from these reproductive gymnastics as well.  We can increase the supply of a particular variety quickly and precisely.  How do you think Stella d'Oro daylilies came to be everywhere?  Asexual propagation.  I think of these plants as little 'narcissists', with no room in their life for love (or genetic recombination).  

Daylilies aren’t alone.  Strawberries send runners out to form new plants.  Tomatoes root along the stems to create new life.  Tulips develop ‘bulblets’ at their base.  Members of the mint family, with their rampant spread, could be the poster children for asexual propagation. 

As if the plant’s innate programming to clone weren’t enough, people have gotten in on the act.  We snip off bits of root and stem, dip them in rooting hormone and grow a new plant.  Not many creatures have this level of reproductive ability.  Worms and starfish can compete in the Reproductive Olympics, but Plants take the gold every time.  

Technological advances now allow us to dice a Hosta into 100 pieces and develop 100 plants through a process called tissue culture.  It’s not the kind of thing one does in garden gloves.  Lab coats and sterility are required, which seems counter-cultural to the dirt-under-our-fingernails gardening psyche.  I tried my hand at it in college and decided it wasn’t for me.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad that someone likes to do it, because I enjoy the benefits of horticultural mass-production (large supply = low prices = happiness).  It's just that lab coats don't appeal to the romantic in me.   


Casa Mariposa said...

My broad leaf mint (pycnanthemum) is a one plant fertility clinic. :o) But it smells so good and the pollinators love it so much, I don't mind. Great post!

Wife, Mother, Gardener said...

Pretty zinnias. I have not had luck yet in growing these, which is miserable since they are supposed to be so easy! Oh well, there is always next year!

Design to Grow said...

Thanks Tammy! I love the one-plant fertility clinic....wish I'd have thought of that one! : )

Julie, as if we don't already have enough in common, I've discovered two more things: we both love Jane Austen movies and neither of us can grow Zinnias. Those belong to my neighbor. ; ) Maybe next year we'll find Zinnia success together!

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