Tuesday, June 6, 2017

The Secret Lives of Flowers (June 4, 2017)

So this year as we celebrate our annual flower communion, we are going to take some time to get to know these plants a little better

One of the hardest things for humans to remember about plants is their roots. Because we don’t have any underground parts, we forget that for some plants as much as half of their body is underground.

This is the season when a lot of people are planting a seedling in your garden. Did anyone here plant any seedlings this year? It’s a good time to see what roots look like [Here I removed the seedling from its pot to show the roots. You can do the same thing at home.] you can see that this plant needs more room to grow.

Have you ever dug up a plant in your garden, to move it to someplace better? I always try to get all the roots, but the big roots we see are not all of the roots- there are also really fine root-hairs. I bet however hard you try, some of the root hairs are going to get broken or bruised when you dig up and re plant a plant. When you see a plant wilt after you re-plant it, that’s most likely because too many roots and root hairs were damaged.

Why does that matter? What do roots do for a plant?
  • bring up water from underground 
  • collect nutrients and minerals
  • anchor the plant
  • some roots store food and water in their roots- like carrots and beets
  • contractile roots- pull plants like lilies and dandelions deeper into the earth
Did you ever wonder how plants know to grow their stems and leaves up and their roots down? Apparently they sense gravity- and the roots are the part that sense gravity. If you cut off just .5mm of the root tip, it can’t tell which way the roots should grow, until the “root cap” grows back. So that’s another important thing roots do- they sense gravity.

They also do some things that roots do to help their eco-system:
  • roots loosen and aerate soil,
  • as they grow and die they build humus,
  • They hold on to the soil, preventing erosion- why should we care about that? Because it takes 1,000 years to make an inch of topsoil- the kind of soil that plants can grow in.[i]
So roots are very important, not only to the plant but to us too!

Stems and Leaves
So plants take in water and nutrients through their roots which travel up the stems to the leaves through vascular system- that’s the same word we use for the human body for our blood vessels.

One of the other ways plants are most different from humans is that they can eat sunlight. This is called? (photosynthesis) Both leaves and stems help with photosynthesis, but for most plants it mostly happens in the leaves.

The plant takes in carbon dioxide, through tiny pores in plant leaves called stomata. Just like humans breathe through their lungs, plants breathe through their stomata- carbon dioxide in, and oxygen out. Sunlight is absorbed by a green pigment in plant cell called chloroplasts – that’s where photosynthesis happens.

Since sunlight is so important to plants, a plant needs to know where sunlight is and move towards it. Darwin did a simple experiment to try to figure out what part of the plant sensed light. He took 5 seedlings
  • the first he did nothing to, so he could see what a plant would normally do
  • the second he cut off the tip
  • the second, he put a light-proof hat on the tip
  • the fourth, he put a kind of neck warmer on the middle
  • the last he put a transparent hat on the tip
The ones who had no tip, or whose tip was blocked from the light did not grow to face the light, and all the others did. So a plant “Sees” light with its tip and the middle part of the stem bends towards it- “photo tropism”[ii]

Plants also need to know when to grow and when to make flowers and seeds. They don’t have clocks or calendars, so how do they do it? Let’s say you had wanted to bring chrysanthemums, a flower that blooms in the fall, to flower communion today. Botanists figured out that plants are measuring not the length of the day, but the length of the night. So if you had a bunch of chrysanthemums in your greenhouse, and every night you interrupted the dark with a flash of light, the plants would think it was summer, and not yet time to bloom. Then if you stopped 2 weeks before flower communion, the plants would sense the long nights and think it was the fall, and start blooming.

Here’s something else that’s cool- plants know the difference between blue and red. The kind of light they grow toward is blue light, but the kind of light they need to tell the season is red light.

What part of the plant is sensing these flashes? Well those mean old scientists took all the leaves off a plant, and the plant did not respond to the red light. But when they shined the red light on any 1 leaf, the whole plant responded. So the leaves are the part of the plant that “sees” red light.

Flowers, fruits and seeds
Most plants have some things in common. (I say most, because every time I think something is always true, I learn about the exceptions) First they are babies, little sprouts with just 2 leaves, then 4 leaves. They add leaves and roots and grow in size and when the nights are the right length, they start to flower. That’s why if you go to a farmer’s market around here in May, the farmers don’t have any fruits yet- just greens like spinach. Then, when things are just right, the plants begin to bud and flower. Not all plants have flowers, only “angiosperms” – about 95% of plants are angiosperms.

A flower is the part of the plant or organ plants use to have make baby plants. Many flowers are showy and beautiful; bright colors, strong scents and sweet nectar, because they are trying to attract pollinators like birds, bees and other insects. They need the pollinators to move pollen from one flower to another to make sure every ovary has what it needs to turn into a seed. Once the flower has done it job, it withers and the real work begins- making a fruit. Any mature ovary containing a seed is called a fruit. Can you give me some examples? It turns out that technically a nut is a kind of fruit too!

When you go to the grocery story, it’s like a weird science fiction world where time doesn’t exist. Fruits and vegetables come from all over the world by truck and boat and train so that you can eat summer fruit in January, and September fruits in June. But if we watch carefully the world around us, we see that there is a progression of the flowers that is very similar but always a bit different every year. The pollinators, like the bees, count on this progression or they would sometimes have nothing to eat. In my yard, the first plants that flower each year are the snow drops. Then the crocuses.

Does anyone remember what they saw next this year? What is in your yard now?

What do you think you will see when the summer is hot? And in the fall?
They need the pollinators to move pollen from one flower to another to make sure every ovary has what it needs to turn into a seed. Once the flower has done it job, it withers and the real work begins- making a fruit. Any mature ovary containing a seed is called a fruit. Can you give me some examples? It turns out that technically a nut is a kind of fruit too!

Today we celebrate not only of the profusion of beauty nature offers up each year at this time, but of the beauty of community. We bring our flowers, each special in its own unique way- some cultivated, some wild, some modest some flamboyant. Each of them is a special gift and all together the make something even more wonderful. Like in this community of persons; each of us is a special, unique gift, and all together we make something even more wonderful.

Flower meditation
Take a moment now to appreciate that flower in your hand. Some of you have more than just a flower, you have leaves or maybe a whole plant.

Is this a plant you’ve seen many times before, or is it new to you?

What does it smell like?

If you like, gently touch the different parts, are they smooth, or rough?

Do the parts feel different from one another?

How many colors does it have?

If you were going to paint it what colors would you choose?

How many petals does the flower have?

Can you figure out where the stamen are- the part that produces the pollen?

Can you see any pollen there?

Are any parts of the plant withered?

Are there any buds that have yet to open? Let’s just take another moment to mindfully enjoy and to gaze on them with gratitude.

Blessed be

End notes

[i] http://www.childrenoftheearth.org/soil-facts-for-kids/soil-facts-for-kids-11.htm
[ii] What a Plant Knows: A Field Guide to the Senses by Daniel Chamovitz

No comments: