7 freaky things that plants can do
Plants…they’re more than just a pretty face (or leaf or flower)! They can do all sorts of extraordinary things. Read on to learn about a handful of particularly crazy examples…
- The Australian Eucalyptus tree fights for space and territory like most other plants and animals. But it does this in a pretty incredible way. You see, the Eucalyptus is designed to both encourage a fire and flourish afterwards so that it’s the last one standing. Eucalyptus oil, which gives the trees its spicy smell, is really flammable - sometimes it is carried in the heat in smoggy clouds in the air. Their leaves are so full of poisonous napalm (a highly flammable liquid sometimes used in wars) that bugs and fungus don't break them down. So they just dry out and cover the forest floor. Its bark peels off in long streamers that encourage a fire to spread further and in particularly dry, windy weather, Eucalyptus trees have been known to blow up! Scary stuff - hey?! The story doesn’t end there though as Eucalyptus trees have stems deep inside their trunks ready to spring out once the smoke settles. Plus their seeds open up when burned and they love ash-rich soil. So it’s no wonder that many Australians have called the fiery Eucalyptus, a ‘Gasoline tree’!
- Command an army of bugs!
- Studies have shown that some plants such as the Common Tomato, and Tobacco, release chemicals to attract bigger bugs to come along and eat the caterpillars feasting on its leaves. Some plants can sense the digestive chemicals the invading bugs produce when they're eating them! How clever is that?! Tobacco plants have also been shown - in some parts of the world - to change the time when they open their flowers from dusk to dawn - so not to attract as many moths with their scent. But it’s not all war and violence, plants can share the love too! For example, some types of Orchid plant attract insects with various scents (often the smell of a female mate), the insect is then coated in pollen which is spread around when it flies away. This helps the plant to spread elsewhere helping its ongoing survival.
- 'See' underground
- Scientists have long known that plants have light receptors in their stems, leaves and flowers to absorb sunlight. This process is commonly known as photosynthesis and enables plants to react Carbon Dioxide with water to make a sugar called glucose. Glucose is stored and used to help the plant grow and flourish. Oxygen is the waste product that we humans and animals depend on too. Recently, though, researchers in Seoul University in South Korea have dug a little deeper (get it?!) and found that the Arabidopsis Thaliana plant, has a stem that acts like a fibre-optic cable. (You know, like what many fake, light-up Christmas trees are made of!) This allows light to transfer down through the roots helping them to grow. Unfortunately, though, the light’s intensity is so low that you’re not going to see the soil light up anytime soon nor will there will be light parties for moles and other creatures! Can you imagine?! But it's interesting to think about how there might be other, clever ways that plants use sunlight to help them grow.
- Babysit newborn moths!
- Leafflower moths and Leafflower trees have something good going on! But it all starts in the dark! At night the trees’ flowers release a scent that is irresistible to Leafflower moths. Female moths not only move between the flowers and help the tree pollinate (reproduce and spread), but they also lay an egg in one of the flowers. After a few months, the egg hatches. By this time, the flower has turned into a fruit which provides food for the baby moth (or larva as it’s first known). But all good things come to an end and eventually the larva eats its way out of the fruit. It then pupates over Winter (creates a cocoon to develop in) and emerges as an adult moth in Spring. Some species of the tree take longer to produce fruit and so the time frame is different. In these instances, the life cycle between larva and adult moth happens entirely within the fruit. The moth simply flies out when it’s ready. Who knew that some trees and moths could actually be BFFs?!
- Play hide and seek from the sun!
- The newly-discovered Japanese plant, Sciaphila yakushimensis lives a rather lonely life spending most of it hidden underground. It can’t photosynthesise (see number 3 above for what this means) and so it steals nutrients from fungus growing in the soil. It chooses to stay mostly underground to help prevent itself from being eaten. It only pops up through the forest floor to flower and fruit. It’s such a rare species it needs all the help it can get - from its fungus friends but also humans. Scientists say that its dependence on underground fungal networks means that to effectively protect the plant, we need to protect the entire ecosystem around it that enables it to live.
- The Javan Cucumber vine has wings…literally! Their seeds are shaped a bit like mini boomerangs and have been shown to fly up to 100 metres gliding on air currents. This means the plant can reproduce and grow all across a large space- not always competing with other species in the same area. In fact, these seeds are so good at flying that they inspired some of the earliest designs for aeroplanes. Igo Etrich, one of the first pioneers of flight, based his glider designs on the shape of these type of seeds.
- Trap its prey!
- Venus Fly Traps – and other meat-eating plants- go way back! They originally evolved from a simpler version of the plant which had sticky leaves. But the need to hunt and eat even larger prey has made the plant slowly evolve and improve its tactics. They have trigger hairs that sense when something is inside its mouth-like trap, and teeth to catch and prevent its prey from escaping. The Venus Fly trap shuts around an insect in just 0.3 seconds or faster! Biologist, Charles Darwin was particularly fascinated by them. Some think this is because they go against what we usually expect of plants i.e. to be silent, still and harmless. Instead, the Venus flytrap moves like a skilful, wild animal quickly catching and eating its prey.
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