What plants can teach us about surviving a pandemic.
Before all the lockdowns, I bought some fresh basil from Trader Joe’s, trimmed off all but the top leaves, clipped the stem at its midpoint, and put the cut end in a little glass vase.
When the basil pushed out fresh baby roots at the end of March, I was transitioning in my isolation from losing it in a bad way — with panic mimicking fever symptoms — to losing it in a good way — falling hard into daydreams and making much-too-elaborate dinners for one.
The little roots were one thing nudging my mental state in the right direction. In them, I perceived something of a message: a song simple and beautiful, banal and profound.
They sang: Life yearns for more.
This clipping, which could have just withered after a rough journey through the Trader Joe’s supply chain, didn’t die. It was trying to survive, and I felt good about it.
These hopeful baby roots were on my mind when I saw a new study, published in the journal New Phytologist, about the beautiful, ordinary, and profound things flowers do after suffering an injury. That is: When many flower species get knocked down, they right themselves. The individual flowers on the stalk will rotate back, as best they can, into a position ideal for pollination.
Like me watching my little roots growing at home, the scientists here made a small — one might say, obvious — observation. The difference, though, is that this paper is perhaps the first time this has been documented in the scientific literature, the result of a decade of work.
The paper is also a window into the balancing act of evolution. It’s reassuring to read it now, in springtime, as flowers are blooming and many of us feel like we are not. Look at blossoms, which may seem frail at first glance, and discover resilience.
It’s not often I find the text of an academic article to be riveting and even beautiful. Here, I was hooked: “Virtually no research has addressed response to accidents involving flowers,” ecologists Scott Armbruster and Nathan Muchhala write. “Yet flowering stalks are often subject to accidental collapse, as when a scape blows down in the wind or coarse litter falls onto a stem …” Great Darwin’s ghost! This is a scientific oversight.
Armbruster and Muchhala wanted to know what happens when a flower is put in peril. Their research here also speaks to the message: Life yearns for more.
Ten years ago, a tree branch fell on some flowers in Australia
Scott Armbruster is a professor at the University in Portsmouth in England, who spoke with me from his own quarantine in a remote corner of the Isle of Wight. There, he’s surrounded by trees and, increasingly, people on nature walks trying to escape the confines of their homes.
Armbruster studies the coevolution of plants and the insects that pollinate them. Such is the delicate balance of evolution: There is a flower optimized for a bee to land on it, and a bee capable of landing on that flower. These partnerships have coevolved for millions of years, and they exist everywhere in nature. When Charles Darwin, for example, saw an orchid with an 11-inch-deep nectar well, he predicted that there must be an insect with a ridiculously long mouth to reach the sweet stuff. Darwin, of course, was right.
“In many ways, Darwin was my hero as a little kid — and I’ve never outgrown that,” Armbruster says. Like Darwin, Armbruster prefers the type of science that involves adventuring out into the world and making careful observations of life doing its thing. His hypotheses, and his experiments to test them, are derived from that fieldwork.
Ten years ago, Armbruster was out doing fieldwork in Australia when he came across a trigger plant that had suffered an “accident.”
Trigger plants grow like snapdragons do here in the US: they have tall stalks, encrusted with jewel-gorgeous flowers that point outward toward the horizon.