Smarty plants!

Published on September 7th, 2012
Smarty plants!

If you need a brain to be smart, then where are these three super-smart plants hiding theirs?

1. The plant that dies and comes back to life
When a plant dies, you throw it out and move on, right? Well, if it happens to be a resurrection plant, you might want to think twice. Why? Because resurrection plants can lose 95% of their water, lie dormant and dead-looking for years, and then come back to life within 24 hours if you give them one drink of water.

“Pretty cool, but so what,” you might ask? Well, if we can figure out how these smart plants accomplish this, then we might be able to create drought-resistant crops that could feed people all over Africa! And a scientist right here in South Africa is working out how to do exactly that…

Jill Farrant is a professor of molecular and cell biology at the University of Cape Town. She’s been studying resurrection plants for 15 years, but she first noticed them when she was only nine years old. While walking on her family’s farm one day, young Jill noticed a brown, dead-looking plant on a rock. A few days later, she was walking around the same area after some rain had fallen, and she noticed that the same plant was green and full of life. She went home and wrote in her diary, “The ded plant on the rocks was alive but Dad wouldn’t believe me.”

Today, everyone believes Professor Jill Farrant. In fact, she recently won a L’Oreal-UNESCO Women in Science Award for her work on resurrection plants. And if she figures out how to create drought-tolerant crops and save millions of people from starvation, we’re guessing she’ll soon get a Nobel Prize… Watch this space!

2. The plant that tricks ants into planting it
Fynbos is only found in South Africa. And just like South African people, these plants have come up with many smart ideas that help them succeed in life. One such plant is the silver-edge pincushion (Leucospremum patersonii), which has come up with a really clever way to make sure that its seeds get the best chance they can to survive and grow.

Every silver-edge pincushion seed comes with a built-in waxy cover called an elaisome. The local ants happen to find this coating extremely tasty, so they carry every seed they find into their nests, where they can feast on the elaisome. And when they’re done, they just leave the seed safely planted underground, where it can’t be destroyed or eaten by birds and other above-the-ground seed-eating creatures.

But that’s not where the smartness ends. Becaue fynbos is very dense vegetation, the seed also needs to wait underground until there’s enough space for it to grow. But how does it know when there’s space aboveground? Simple: it lies dormant until a bush-fire comes along and burns all the plants in the area. And then, when the seed detects nutrients from the ash, along with moisture and nice, cool winter temperatures, it germinates and starts to grow at the perfect time.

3. The plant that inspired Velcro
Velcro is found on takkies, under car mats, on armbands and even on equipment that’s send into space. But it all began one day in 1948, when a Swiss engineer named George de Mestral went hunting in the mountains with his dog. When he got home, he discovered that his dog – and his pants – were covered with spiky little seeds called burrs.

When he checked out the seeds under a microscope to find out what made them so sticky, he saw hundreds of tiny little hooks that grabbed onto any animal or pants-wearing passerby. And that’s where he got the idea for Velcro, which sticks together using – you guessed it – tiny hooks.

But what clever plant makes these seeds, and why? The seeds come from plants called burdock plants, which developed this smart type of seed so their kind could spread far and wide. Just like Velcro…

The above three smart ideas were brought to you by 3M, a company that uses curiosity and creativity to solve problems around the world every day. Click here to read more about this awesome, innovative company.


Credit: Image from Flickr/pasukaru76