Posts Tagged ‘the plant kingdom’

Rosemary Is a Strange Thing

February 5th, 2012 | Meera

Rosemary is a strange thing. Who else would store perfume inside a needle? A strange thing, Rosemary. You cannot take her measure just by looking. Inside just one green spine resides a piney forest, all entire.

Rosemary booms in the dry and the rocky, grows moldy and limp if life gets too easy. Rosemary doesn’t want tending by you or by anyone.

Find her in the desert, where more tender things die. Let her drink only what blows in off the salty sea winds.

Rosemary

Lessons from Plants in Pain, or What We Talk About When We Talk to Ourselves

December 14th, 2011 | Meera

Roald Dahl, sovereign of the strange idea played out in matter-of-fact sentences, once wrote a story about a man named Klausner who invents a sound machine. With it he’s able to hear rarefied notes—tremors of the air that otherwise range, like so many things, outside the limits of human perception. When he turns on his invention, Klausner finds himself initiated into an entire universe he hadn’t known existed: a universe of plant communication.

You might think, on the face of it, that this would be a fine and lovely thing. You might think of how you generally experience the green and the growing, and imagine Klausner entering a soundscape filled with music, strains that match the beauty of a field of wildflowers or the elegance of autumn leaves. But instead, he mostly apprehends the noises of plants in distress. “Fierce grinding discords” fall on his ears: he’s shocked by the shrieks that roses make when they’re clipped off the bush. He’s tormented by pity when he hears the awful moans of a tree trunk split by his own axe.

Dahl leaves the question of whether the machine really works open to interpretation—but what I like about the story doesn’t rest on the definition of Klausner as either brilliant or insane. The thing that’s stayed with me, long years after I first read The Sound Machine, is Dahl’s bleak view of what speaks loudest in this world, what he thinks drives the “speech” of all living things—and that is pain.

*******

343 (Mimosa plant, before)

Most disasters, even if they’re built on long and quiet years of brewing, eventually befall us with what feels like too little warning. A stroke slams down upon the pathway blood must take to brain, a guillotine that splits a thought in two. Your partner’s eyes, warm as summer lakes, freeze over for no reason you can fathom. A midnight switchblade sticks its cutting edge between your ribs; you gasp awake, pinned by the sharp awareness that you’re inside the wrong life. Tomorrow you might lose your job, your home. Be diagnosed with cancer. Even if you know the air is humid with the vapors of oncoming injuries, each one remains invisible until the day it’s churned into a storm.

I don’t think we’d be better off if we could see the future. I’m pretty sure I, anyway, would be flattened by the weight of full omniscience. But some small bit of notice, a clear advisory or two—watch out, here’s danger on the way!—now that, I’d take. Wouldn’t you? I think that wish must have something to do with why so many of us sit ourselves down to write quite undeliverable letters to the people we once were—an act that’s whimsical and sweet, and yet somehow forlorn.

Maybe it’s also why I’ve come to be, especially of late, a great collector of stories about other people’s hurts. (A cheerful philately.) If you’ve been wounded, come and bend my ear. I want to hear your warnings. And sometimes I eavesdrop on damages that strangers speak of. Years ago I spent almost half an hour lingering over my coffee—which was bad—because the girl at the table next to mine, fresh off her honeymoon, was wiping hot tears from her face and telling her companion how miserable she was to be married. She wasn’t my friend. It wasn’t my problem. And I’m not at all proud to have been riveted. But it was impossible not to be. My body rang (unobtrusively, I hope) with borrowed sorrow, and I still recall her cadences.

I think that moment meant so much to me because, respectfully, Tolstoy was not entirely correct about unhappiness. Life doesn’t feel the need to plan new slights and sicknesses to suit each one of us. Its threats recycle. I’m a realist: I know that, private though they feel, my troubles hover at the average, coinciding with those of my species. Whatever has battered some other Homo sapiens may soon come for me, and I would like to start preparing my defenses.

If this sounds ghoulish to you, well. I understand. But you should know that I am not alone in paying close attention to the suffering of my peers for my own sake. I stand with graceful trees: with willows, alders, poplars, sugar maples. The sweetest and most useful crops, as well—pea pods, beans, tomatoes, cotton—are selfish just like me. And ears of barley, ears of corn—these listen, too, to their beleaguered neighbors.

Klausner (tender soul!) was driven nearly mad by sadness when he overheard plant pain. He called a doctor for his broken tree and made him paint iodine in the wound. Plants themselves know better what to do.

*******

It was in the early 1980s that a few scientists first began to report on trees that seemed to send each other stress signals. One was a zoologist named David Rhoades, at the time studying Red alder (Alnus rubra) and Sitka willow (Salix sitchensis) defense mechanisms at the University of Washington. Rhoades fed caterpillars leaves from trees their brethren had previously attacked. He found that they began to lose their appetites, and often died prematurely. Presumably this was because of some chemical compound the trees were able to release into their leaves as a form of rapid resistance—precisely the kind of thing he’d been looking for.

But Rhoades was surprised to discover that the very same thing happened to caterpillars fed the leaves of undamaged control trees, planted a little distance away. Could the attacked trees be emitting some kind of pheromonal warning that their counterparts could “hear?” Could they be telling their fellows to put up a fight against their leggy foes?

This study inspired a similar experiment on potted poplars (Populus euroamericana) and sugar maples (Acer saccharum) by a pair of researchers at Dartmouth. Jack Schultz and Ian Baldwin found higher concentrations of mildly toxic compounds called phenols in trees whose leaves they had torn. They saw the same thing when they checked on unscathed trees, after they were exposed to air pumped in from the chamber where the damaged trees were housed.

The scientific community as a whole reacted to these findings with great skepticism, some of which was not undeserved: methodological problems and an over-confident interpretation of statistics tainted both sets of results. But there was also, apparently, not a little ridicule, with some ecologists scoffing over the idea of “talking trees” and animal behaviorists closing ranks around the definition of communication.

In hindsight, this part of the negative response was somewhat less justified. In the first fourteen years that followed Rhoades, Schultz, and Baldwin’s reports, only three studies regarding plant-plant communication were published (perhaps because of the disbelieving atmosphere they would have emerged into). But times have changed. According to this overview of the literature on the subject, that figure increased to nearly 50 papers between 2005 and 2010.

At this point, the evidence that plants can receive, act on, and benefit from specific signals produced by their distressed coequals is pretty compelling. We’ve learned, for instance, that corn seedlings primed with compounds released by damaged plants give off more of their own defense hormones and chemicals when subsequently slashed with a razor blade or painted with caterpillar regurgitant. (Science is cruel.) We’ve learned that certain unrelated species, like sagebrush and tobacco, can interpret each other’s cues about dangers like hungry herbivores or clipper-happy researchers. We’ve even learned that well-watered pea plants, having overheard a warning from a thirsty neighbor, can pass on that message to still other plants, further away—although this game of vegetable Telephone seems to be played through the medium of soil, not air.

In my favorite recent study, which delights me more because of how the plants defend themselves than how they talk about it, Lima beans infested with spider mites—as well as those exposed to leaves from infested plants—react by activating a set of genes that trigger the emission of a volatile organic compound. This compound, in turn, attracts spider mite predators that come and hoover up the pests.

How wonderful is that? I call it very wonderful, especially since our own apartment has witnessed the expiration of a beloved dwarf Meyer lemon tree that succumbed to a spider mite blitzkrieg. If we’d had two trees, I wonder if one could have saved the other?

Maybe what Dahl got wrong was not the thought that pain is the seabed of all our most essential speech. Maybe where he erred was in suggesting that the anguish Klausner heard was simply that: anguish, pure expression with no purpose and no useful end.

I think of myself sitting at a coffee table, leaning in, despite my better judgment, and breathing in the chemistry of someone else’s heartache. In my mind, now, I see it as a moment of anointment, an inoculation. I think this even though I have no way of measuring what changed in me because of it.

Our bodies fail. Our partners leave. We wake up sick, or shipwrecked. Shocked. And I am hungry to be put on guard, to know when something wicked this way comes.

*******

It’s clear that unscathed plants do eavesdrop, like me, on strangers in distress, and make themselves stronger when they hear of trouble. What’s less clear is what is happening for the plant in pain. Is its anguished warning—Watch out, danger!—really meant to serve as counsel to the ones around it? It’s possible, of course, that some plants evolved to give off stress signals altruistically, because neighbors are often kin, and one example keeps the group as a whole safe. But many times, letting a neighbor in on danger makes you more vulnerable. A Lima bean plagued with spider mites might not want its compatriots to be protected by mite-eaters. (One lemon tree might have saved another, but reluctantly.)

Instead of selfless exhortations, the story of plant stress signals seems at once more simple and more strange. The thing is, a plant that’s hurt and sending out a warning is very likely talking to itself.

Most plants have sophisticated vascular systems, and that’s often how they transmit chemical messages. But volatile compounds, diffusing through air, can travel faster than molecules moving against gravity through tiny tubes. Airborne signals also allow parts of a plant that don’t have a direct connection to each other to speak. Why, though, would a plant need to warn itself? What does that even mean? Well, think of this: A caterpillar munching on one leaf will probably move on to another, a little ways off. That second leaf has time—not much, it’s true, but some small span—to put up its own garrison against the tyranny of tearing insects. That second leaf is far from doomed. And it could use some notice. A body needs to take care of itself.

Most disasters befall us with what feels like too little warning. But maybe that’s because, wrapped up in where we hurt right now, we don’t imagine taking steps to care for what is still undamaged. I know; we are not plants, with separate fates for separate parts. When I’m in pain, it feels as if I ache completely, my entire consciousness consumed by one calamity. And yet. Could there be, do you think, something in this selfish signaling? Some way for us to be like willows and like alders?

I’m not entirely sure. But this past year, and nearly two, has felt like injury to me; so now seems like the time to test the case. I’d rather not be Klausner’s roses, crying out futility. I’ll trust instead that there is strong and healthy matter that remains in me, and let the weaker parts speak loudly to them. More importantly, I’ll try to listen and to learn. Because it’s not, I think, too late to start talking to myself.

And you? Ah. If you eavesdrop, let it be.

*******

Mimosa plant, after

Highly recommended further reading: This wonderful article about visionary biologist Chandra Bose, and his experiments in plant sensation and behavior.

The Sweetest, Spiciest Medicine

August 4th, 2010 | Meera

They’ve been living with us for over a year now, two little South Asian transplants. Recently I put them both outside after a long winter punctuated by the spit and wheeze of the radiator, and they seemed to notice right away the sun on their long arms, reaching up towards it like hungry birds. They have since grown lush and so very, very green that it seems almost too much to look at them sometimes. Their greenness demands experimental uses of adverbs: They are severely green, my trees—tempestuously green—vehemently green. They pound greenness into an essential oil.

If you rub their leaves between your fingers, as it is impossible to resist doing, the aroma they give off is warm, nutty, spicy—a hint of tangerine, a sip of onion, the breath of an entire simmering curry in one tiny tear-shaped package. They could not be more beautiful, especially after a summer storm that soaks their soil dark and forms tiny reflecting pools on every fragrant leaf.

The curry leaf tree‘s scientific name, Murraya koenigii, honors not its own charming qualities but the botanists Johann Andreas Murray (of Sweden) and Johann Gerhard König (of Germany), both of whom lived and died in the stink of the 18th century and neither of whom, I would wager (drunk as I am on dinner), ever sniffed anything quite so rich and piquant and utterly heady as the coconut dal I made tonight using eight little leaves I harvested from our balcony garden.

But it needn’t content itself with this cold label, for the curry leaf tree had the great good fortune to be born in a land that seethes with musical tongues. It bears at least two dozen other names (or maybe a thousand), each as alluring as the next. You can call it karepaku or karivepaaku in Andhra Pradesh; narasingha or bishahari in Assam; barsanga or kartaphulli in Bengal; gorenimb or kadhilimbdo in Gujrat; mitha neem, gandhla, gandhela, or gandhelu in Himachal Pradesh; karibeva in Karnataka; kariveppilei in Kerela; gandhela, gandla, or gani in Kumaon; bassan, basango, or bhursanga in Orissa; karivempu or karuveppilei in Tamilnadu. If you speak Hindi, you can name it kathnim, mitha neem, kurry patta gandhela or, barsanga; in Sanskrit, take your pick from surabhinimba, kalasaka, and mahanimb.

Just roll those around your tongue for a minute while you look at this tempestuous green.

216

I am not a fan of conceiving of food as medicine, but (dal warming my belly, smell of curry on my fingers), I wondered this evening if there might be not only beauty, not only pleasure, but also virtue in my trees. I confess, I wanted to think so. They are such winning little things, so brave and out of place on my Midwestern porch. Let them be shored up for another winter, I thought, with more good qualities. Let them be salubrious, and shore me up for winter.

Here, then.

In 1995, a group of Indian biochemists found that rats, fed with a supplement of curry leaves, experienced far less of a blood cholesterol-spike from the vast quantities of coconut oil the researchers were also feeding them. A few years later, another Indian team found that the effects of a known carcinogen on rats were significantly mitigated when the rats were also fed curry leaves. There is some evidence that curry leaves reduce blood sugar levels in mildly diabetic rats. They appear to function as antioxidants. They have an antimicrobial effect. They even seem to improve memory.

Virtue, thy name is karivepaaku. And since I have you, how could I be other than fiercely—brilliantly—dauntlessly healthy?

New Year’s Day Self-Similarity

January 1st, 2010 | Meera

There has always been, for me, something shivery and mysterious about the Book of the Thousand and One Nights. One reason is that although for years it sat quite within reach on my father’s bookshelf, both the Nights and its store of what we so (in)delicately call “adult” material were closed to me as a child: locked tight with a single shake of a maternal head. (Let me tell you that when I read the stories, in direct defiance of that fiat, and discovered that not only is there a lot of sex in them but that the very first tale is about a fart so legendary it reverberates through an entire kingdom for generations, I laughed until I cried. Adult indeed.)

But far more wonderful, what I knew about the comparatively slim volume revealed its position within that most favored of literary genres: the infinite book. That “thousand and one!” How I craved its everlasting promise of still one more night after you thought the final one had come.

One other thing gave the Thousand and One Nights limitless mystery, and that was the fact that it held stories within stories within stories. Scheherazade would begin to tell a tale, and all of a sudden its narrator would begin to tell his own tale, and before you knew it its narrator was holding forth on yet another narrative, and so on and so forth until your head spun with delicious confusion. No matter where you looked, it seemed, there was a tiny reflection of the book as a whole, which in turn contained its own reflection, which contained…and in turn…and in turn… The book of Nights was made of endless versions of itself, writ small (er and smaller and smaller).

As in the Nights, so in Nature. Self-similarity is everywhere. Each stretch of the British coastline, fractal-father Mandelbrot tells us, curves and jags and undulates in such a way as to produce a remarkably faithful scale model (not perfect, but close) of the coastline as a whole, no matter how many times you carve it up into smaller and smaller pieces. Always you will find that each individual part contains within itself a rough unabridged copy of the total sum.

So again with the leaves of a fern, whose fronds divide into fronds that divide into fronds, and with the branching bronchial tubes of the lungs, which fork and fork and fork once more. Raise your head to the skies and there too the part reflects the whole. Galaxies clump into small groups, like little knots of gossiping schoolchildren; those clumps form larger clusters, and those clusters even larger throngs.

(What is it for, all this huddling? Is it a lonely thing, being a galaxy? I can’t imagine it could be, since you yourself are made up of clustered clustered clusters of stars…)

And what does all this have to do with New Year’s Day, my dear dears? Why, only this: When I woke up this morning I resolved to make my own self-similarity. This first day, I decided—itself just one small part of the long annum stretching out before me in all its promise and disappointment—should be a scale model, crafted as best I can, of what I want the year to be like.

Therefore, this is what today contained:

Waking to sunlight through curtains and a cat on my belly.

Cooking, with Ross and for a friend. Eating what I had made. Laughing.

Walking, face tingling in the January (!) cold. Looking. Breathing. Hugging Ross.

Making what I know how to make.

Sitting, just sitting, while music plays. Reading with a cup of coffee by my side.

Finally, perhaps most importantly of all, writing this for both you and myself, with a calm heart and nothing to prove.

Welcome to a new decade, readers-mine. I’m enjoying it so far. I’m imagining, at least for one day, that I know what the future holds. It holds a thousand and one New Year’s Days.

RedRun

On the Persistence of Ferns

July 7th, 2009 | Meera

On an early January day in Chicago this year, my muscles twitching in protest of the cold and the sky around me bright with winter sunshine glancing like arrows off the curves of strangers’ sunglasses, I stepped into the Fern Room of the Lincoln Park Conservatory to warm my face with the humid breath of the forest primeval.

If you have never had the pleasure of visiting the Fern Room, the best way I can think of to describe it is to tell you that it is a place where all the colors of the spectrum seem to have been suddenly replaced by a hundred thousand different shades of green. The light that outside was so harsh and dazzling is now filtered through shady fronds of emerald, jade, and olive, and instead of walls and corridors the stout trunks of cycads and the lacy leaflets of ancient ferns divide the room into secret passages and broad arcades. At every turn you begin to expect a horned triceratops or armored ankylosaurus to push through the vegetation, shaking its head and crying, What—is it you? For shame, for shame! You’re sixty million years early!

I came for the cycads, having just read of the endlessly charming Oliver Sacks’ journey to a remote Pacific Island in order to run his hands along their stiff, glossy, blade-like leaves, beguiling but toxic suspects in his search for the source of a strange disease of the mind. But it was the ferns that captured me. I liked their delicately forked fronds, each one divided into innumerable leaflets, called pinnae, that spread outwards like gentle fingers touching the air. Some curled this way and that, and when they did I could see that they were studded with neat lines of rough buttons on the underside. The buttons were called sori, I learned later, and each little nub of a sora held clusters of sporangia, themselves tiny round bubbles holding even tinier spores—these last, as fine as dust, the powder of the next generation.

growth

In the time of Shakespeare, people didn’t know about spores. They thought it obvious that ferns, like all other sensible plants, propagated themselves through seeds, which are eminently practical devices that contain not only the embryonic beginnings of a new plant, but food for the road as well, and have smooth, smart coats to protect them from the elements. (Spores, which are single-celled motes almost too small to see, seem impoverished by comparison.)

But since, five hundred years ago, not a soul had yet recognized the brown patches on the undersides of fern leaves as containing reproductive particles, it began to be believed that the so-called seeds of ferns were cryptic, secret things, not simply well hidden but, in fact, invisible. And like spores that fly far from the fronds where they were first exhaled, that idea traveled and grew. Eventually, wondering herbalists transformed it into the astonishing claim that if you could, somehow, collect the elusive fern seed (say at the moody hour of midnight on Midsummer Night’s Eve) and clutch it in your hand, you yourself would be veiled from the prying eyes of others. In the words of a thief from Henry IV, about to embark on an ambitious robbery, we steal as in a castle, cock-sure; we have the receipt of fern seed—we walk invisible.

It is a very pretty notion indeed, but if I were to steal an essential quality from a fern it would not be invisibility, but persistence.

It isn’t easy to contemplate the earth in its wildest, most wonderful days of youth, but when we do picture it, ferns are the plants we see in our mind’s eyes, blanketing the new world in a riot of green fronds and settling their wispy roots into a rich black soil. The very oldest of ferns are almost impossibly ancient, at least from the perspective of complex living things, some 345 million years old; that makes them older than the dinosaurs, older than flowering plants, and far older than any fuzzy bee that they might otherwise have relied upon to pollinate them. They were giants, then, too, snaking up to the height of ten-story buildings. After the dinosaurs dwindled and died, and almost every other form of life went with them, ferns returned first of all to make the earth verdant again. They grew close together, like brothers, and shielded the soil, and gave other green things the time they needed to revive.

Not only old, ferns, not only huge, not only tenacious, but also numerous: their tally during the Carboniferous period, when they first appeared, was so great that when they died, their remains helped to form vast coal beds all across the earth, hundreds of miles wide and hundreds of feet deep. For hundreds of years we have mined the bodies of ferns to fuel our industry, build our cities, and sustain the needs and desires of our daily lives, and still we have not managed to exhaust their reserves.

What is perhaps even more astonishing is that throughout all these long eons, many ferns have continued to unfurl, generation after generation, into the very same forms they have always had, altering very little about their strange, self-sufficient design. Soft brushes wielded by eager paleontologists, for instance, have gently pushed the dirt from two hundred million year-old fossils of Osmunda clatoniana. Today, the same fern continues to put forth its long, fuzzy stalks in rich woods from Newfoundland to Manitoba, South Carolina to Arkansas, and every point in between.

Its common name may be the “Interrupted Fern,” because tiny brown leaflets, fertile with hundreds of thousands of spores, break up the smooth green lines of its fronds—but its lengthy existence on this earth has been anything but. The same answers that made sense to it two hundred million years ago still make sense now: it has the same leaflet shapes, the same reproductive mechanisms, the same root systems, the same way of throwing up a circlet of fronds from a single central spike, as if fashioning a fringed fan with which to stir the air around an ancient deity.

"A small dinosaur would feel at home...

Consider the stubbornness, the sheer dogged tenacity, of those two hundred million years, against these other figures: the species lifespan of the average flowering plant is only about 3.5 million years—a blip of a figure that closely parallels the species lifespan of the average mammal. Having reached that ineluctable expiry date, most living things give up the ghost, hand over their space on the planet to some newer, upstart species better suited to the planet’s changing circumstances.

Consider this: our own species, even with all our long history of literature and progress and scientific endeavor, and despite the fact that we have been around long enough to dream delightful dreams about fern spores and invisibility and awaken to learn that they are false, still, Homo sapiens has only had a mere five hundred thousand years, give or take a couple of hundred thousand, to work on its routine.

Two hundred million years, and how much more than we has the Interrupted Fern already seen? How much will it witness, after we are gone? How it must yawn, to look upon the petty wars and conquests of human affairs. How wise it is to stay so long the same.

I am not like the ferns. I have spent my thirty years on changes and modifications, constantly refashioning my own shapes, mechanisms, and systems in the hope that there is, after all, a better answer. I have been shy as often as I have been bold; I have worn the crown of ambition as often as the mask of nonchalance; I have copied friends and enemies, believing their shapes an improvement over my own. I have been myself a dozen different ways, and still never found the right one. I am trying out a new incarnation right now, in fact—fingers crossed that this time I know what I’m doing—if only you could see me shift.

I admit that I am tired from all this transmuting. I long for those two hundred million, long to stretch like that. Long to peer out beyond the glow of my own small candle flame and gaze at all that has come before and all that will come after. I am hungry for the peace that I imagine must accompany such a lingering existence.

human contact

And yet, you know, the funny thing about it all is that when your thumb is as inky-black as mine, the lives of plants seem fleeting and fragile.

I once killed a succulent, those hardy green survivors that—like camels—hoard water within their fleshy parts for dry days, by deciding that the most logical place for it was atop a radiator in December. There it baked and shriveled and, inside two weeks, limply relinquished its grip on life. Growing things beyond number have expired under my care, littering my past with inglorious remains: basil; rosemary; cilantro; narcissus; aloevera; bamboo. Just this afternoon I was re-potting six tiny transplants, baby tomatoes and strawberries grown from seed by a friend with more verdant talents—and even as I gazed upon them tenderly, a faint, funereal voice seemed to whistle past my ears: Poor things, it sang. They’ll be gone before the summer’s out. Every pot on my back deck is a memento mori, a reminder of the impermanence of all things.

But there are different measures of longevity. By one, the meandering lifetime of a human gardener, seventy or eighty years long, stretches out like an eternity, punctuated by the small gasps of scores of individual plants that unfurl and pass away within a season in yard after yard, home after home. By another, the entire collective lifetime of the human species is but a gasp itself—at least when compared with the persistence of ferns.