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Plants Can Be Weird, Very, Very Weird

by Wes Porter

Tuesday, September 5, 2006

It has been said that gardening is 20 percent science and 80 percent common sense -- and common sense is based on observation. But there are always at least a few questions that even if we extended our eyes on stalks like those of snails' it would still be hard to see the answer . . .

Why are plants green?

Plants are green because that is the part of the spectrum that they cannot use, so they reflect it back from leaves, stems and other parts that then appear "green" to our eyes.

What is "green"?

If you think that "green" is "green" then talk to a horticulturist or botanist who grow and study plants. Just like selecting paint for the home, there are colour charts to judge plants by. And they feature many, many shades. One of the simplest by Alfred Byrd Graf runs from "ming green" through 17 other names to "olive green." Then there are tints and shades.

Plants need dirt to grow in.

In the garden or wild, plants grow in soil, which is NOT "dirt." There are thousands of different types of soil found all over the world. They are made up of mineral portions eroded down from rocks, organic matter that was once living plants and animals, air and moisture.

Fertilizer "feeds" plants.

Fertilizer, whether "chemical" or "natural", supplies only a small percentage of the nutrients required by the plant. These are the mineral nutrients. Most of the plants needs come from the air as gaseous nutrients. But although small in quantity, the mineral nutrients are vital to health growth.

Plants absorb water through their roots.

Not exactly; many plants take in water -- and dissolved minerals -- through "root hairs", found as a short zone of fur-like growth just behind the root tip or "cap."

Plants don't move.

Wrong -- they can move and sometimes very fast. The Venus Flytrap, Dionaea muscipula, can snap the two halves of its leaves shut in a split second to imprison a fly or other insect that then becomes a meal for the plant. The leaves of the Sensitive Plant, Mimosa pudica, wilt in an instant at the touch of your hand -- Vietnam it is known as the 'Shame Plant.'

Flowers need insects to pollinate them.

True, most of our commonest crops require insects, often bees, to pollinate them. But grain crops such as corn are wind-pollinated and so are conifers such as pine and spruce. Old-fashioned houseplant Aspidistra from Southeast Asia carries its flowers at ground level -- slugs and snails pollinate them. Small birds pollinate the beautiful South African Bird of Paradise Flower, Strelitzia reginae, and bats may do the same for other flowers.

Wes Porter is a horticultural consultant and writer based in Toronto. He has over 40 years of experience in both temperate and tropical horticulture from three continents.