PLANTS; NOT SO DUMB & PASSIVE

The founder of River­ford, Guy Wat­son, re­flects on the in­nate so­phis­ti­ca­tion of plants as he ob­serves his failed crop of run­ner beans

EDP Norfolk - - Promotion -

MUCH of hor­ti­cul­ture is about man­ag­ing the urge of plants to re­pro­duce. Hu­mans need and crave the more di­gestible, nu­tri­ent-dense food found in the re­pro­duc­tive parts of crops; that is the flow­ers, fruits, seeds, bulbs and tu­bers. As grow­ers we de­vote our­selves to ma­nip­u­lat­ing plants to max­imise the yield and qual­ity of those ten­der and tasty re­pro­duc­tive or­gans, which is a tricky bal­ance to strike. If only we could sell you grass for your sup­per; alas the easy to grow, non-re­pro­duc­tive parts of plants are largely in­di­gestible to hu­mans.

Plants in their wild state have sur­vived the chal­lenges of pesti­lence, drought, flood, ice ages and now Homo sapi­ens by mas­ter­ing a long-term strat­egy of bal­anc­ing growth and dom­i­nance against risk. Get­ting big­ger to in­crease their re­pro­duc­tive ca­pac­ity must be bal­anced against the risk of not mak­ing it to ma­tu­rity. At a cel­lu­lar level the strat­egy all boils down to whether a cell in the api­cal meris­tem (grow­ing point) dif­fer­en­ti­ates into leaf or flower (above ground) and root or starch-sav­ing tu­ber (be­low). If things are look­ing good a plant will typ­i­cally ex­tend its veg­e­ta­tive life, as­sum­ing the chance for greater fe­cun­dity will come later; if things are get­ting tough (drought, lack of nu­tri­ents or light etc) it will switch to sex­ual mode early so at least some genes are pre­served.

Such were my mus­ings as I ob­served our early run­ner beans which have grown and grown but failed to pro­duce a crop. The gen­er­ally-held wis­dom is to build a strong plant, then stress it with wa­ter de­pri­va­tion tomake it flower, then give it ev­ery­thing it needs so it feels con­fi­dent and fills ev­ery pod. As our plants reach for the poly­tun­nel roof and the soil is cov­ered with aborted flow­ers and just a few crates of beans to show for it, it’s plain we haven’t grasped the sub­tleties.

There is a ten­dency to re­gard plants as dumb and passive, yet their in­ter­ac­tion with the world goes far beyond the ba­sic tropisms we learnt at school. They can sense, even “hear” pest at­tack and re­spond with de­fence chem­i­cals, much as our own im­mune sys­tem works. They may not moo, baa or rush around, but the ap­par­ent pas­siv­ity of plants hides sub­tleties and com­plex re­sponses which have served them well. It re­mains to be seen how well they will sur­vive us.

“There is a ten­dency to re­gard plants as dumb and passive, yet their in­ter­ac­tion with the world goes far beyond the ba­sic tropisms we learnt at school.” -- Guy Wat­son

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