Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Warrior Plants

During class one day (and by class, I mean hiking through the forest and learning about what we see), our professor Mau told us to lay on the ground of the Children’s Eternal Rainforest in Monteverde and pretend to be seedlings. Um okay…? We were all confused, but we went along with it.
While laying in the misty forest, I thought about what it would be like to have to survive as a seedling. It would be like being a warrior. When warriors hit the battlefield, nothing gets in their way. It’s win, or die trying. Plants are exactly the same.
If plants and warriors aren’t exactly synonymous in your head, I understand. Plants are serene, beautiful, and tranquil. Warriors are violent, brutal, and, well, basically everything opposite. However, though it may seem incongruous, the forest is a ruthless battlefield. Every day, animals, bugs, and plants are fighting to survive. And when I say fighting, I mean FIGHTING. I know, you’re thinking, “Okay Mackenzie, I get it for animals which can have claws and fangs. Or bugs, which can sting and bite. But plants? Plants don’t fight.”
Oh yes, plants fight.
Sometimes it’s obvious, like if the plant has modified parts creating giant prickles, spines, or thorns. Sometimes it’s a little more hidden, like if the plant is inedible or poisonous. But a lot of the fighting plants do goes unseen. Unless you know what you’re looking for.
Forests are packed. We always talk about how great it is to have so many diverse individuals in such a small area, but what do you do if you’re a new seed trying to grow?
Let’s say you’re a newly dispersed seed. Where were you dropped? A stream? What about on another tree? Did you land on another plant’s roots? If you answered yes to any of the above, you’re not growing. Your odds of being the only plant falling on a patch of soil suitable for growing is slim, but let’s say that you’re a lucky seed and you find a great patch of soil. What’s next?

Sun. This one’s tricky. In a forest, only about 2% of the sunlight that hits the canopy makes it to the ground. For some plants, that’s nowhere near enough. Perhaps this is where your story ends. However, on occasion you get lucky and find yourself in a light gap. Light gaps are made when a branch or a tree falls in the forest, allowing light to reach the forest floor. The second the light gap is made, the true warrior plants step in. The competition is brutal. The gap is filled with seeds trying to take over—some are new arrivals; some have been waiting for the right conditions for years. But all of the seeds want to get the best patch of soil, the most sunlight, and the most nutrients to grow tall as fast as they can. The race is on! Whichever plant grows tallest and strongest the fastest shades out the other plants and is crowned victorious. The rest die. So as a seedling sitting on the forest floor in Monteverde, did you win?
Mackenzie Coden
Northwestern University

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