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Don't trifle with the affections of plants

>> Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Apparently back in 2007, some Canadian researchers determined that plants recognize their own family members and "play nice" with them.  Well, at least common seashore plants called sea rockets and a small flowering plant named Arabidopsis thalianal do.  See MSNBC article on the research here.   (If this is universally true, my friend who is a trusts and estates lawyer would say plant siblings play a lot nicer with each other than human siblings do.) 

On the other hand, if plants are planted next to strangers rather than relatives, they commence competitions.  Each tries to out-root the other to steal all the nutrients.  They allegedly differentiate between family members and strangers through chemicals secreted by the roots.

Some of my favorite quotes from this article:

"When sibling plants grow next to each other, their leaves will often touch and intertwine, while stranger plants near each other grow rigidly upright and avoid touching."

What a great visual.  How cute those little hand-holding sibling plants are. 

"Plants have no visible sensory markers, and they can't run away from where they are planted."

Are they sure of this, I wonder?  Some of my plants sure seemed to hoist up their green ruffly skirts in early spring and wander off to the great green yonder that is someplace other than my garden.  Query:  Where DO they go when they disappear overnight like that?  I can't figure out who deserves the blame.

But seriously, though, this presents some real food for thought.  (pardon the pun)  Most of my garden plants I start from seeds.  Are all the kale seeds in that packet from one plant or a family of plants?  Or are they seeds from unrelated plants who will try to out-compete one another?  Might this explain why one of each species often turns out to be 10x larger than the rest?  And how about planting separate species next to each other?  Perhaps planting different plants farther apart might help protect each from the competition of its neighbors.  Or, if you put plants next to each other that have similar capacities for competition and growth, might it cause all of those plants to be bigger and lusher as they each try to take up more space than their neighbors?

It's a fascinating concept, in so many ways.  It makes my plants seem far more animate to think of them in this light.  I'm not sure it gives me any real practical ideas for helping my garden thrive, but it sure makes me like my plants that much more.


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