Amazing, adaptable plants

Chris Young

Sometimes the most amazing feats of engineering and beautiful works of art are right at our feet.

Over thousands of years, plants have grown and adapted to survive in a constantly changing world. Sometimes those adaptations are sensible; other times, puzzling, seemingly intended only as a means to display nature’s artistry.

“There are so many adaptations, it would be two semesters of coursework just to go over some of them,” says Michael Murphy, a botanist with the Illinois Natural History Survey in Champaign.

Murphy polled some of his colleagues at the survey and mined his own experience for some of the best examples of plants that have found creative ways to thrive.

Porcupine grass is specially engineered to be able to plant itself when its stems twist together and drive the sharp-tipped seeds into the ground.

The seeds are attached to two strands that dry at different rates, causing them to twist around each other. They sometimes get tangled up in the coats of livestock.

Trumpet vine, with its long red blooms, is thought to have become associated with hummingbirds because the blossoms complement the tiny bird’s long bill.

“And then you could really get into the physiology and chemistry and how these things happen at the cellular level,” he says. “You could just spend months looking at all these adaptations and studying how they take place.”

Sometimes the adaptations are not so readily apparent. Murphy says botanists can spend decades in the field observing and trying to figure out why things work the way they do. And sometimes even the scientists are amazed by what they see.

Bladderwort, or utricularia, is an especially fascinating group of plants.

“The underwater branching system has all of these little chambers, or bladderlike structures, and when something comes by and trips a tiny hair, it causes the bladder to be inflated with water,” says Murphy of the plant that lives and floats in water. “And it sucks the insect into that bladderlike pod, where it can digest it for nutrients it cannot otherwise get.

“Even mosquito larvae trip those hairs.”

Spring woodland wildflowers that blossom as soon as the snow melts away also have found a niche that allows them to survive.

“Our spring ephemerals — like spring beauties, toothworts and Dutchman’s britches — complete their life cycles very early, because once the canopy of the forest closes, the leaves shut off sunlight to the forest floor,” Murphy says.

Flowers that were present by the hundreds and thousands in early March are all but gone now. They’ve mostly died back to dormancy — waiting for the next window of opportunity to open when the suns warms the ground next spring.

Some flowers aren’t flowers at all, but road signs to attract pollinators.

“Viburnum — particularly the high bush cranberry, but also two native hydrangeas — have the flowers in the center of this cluster that are not very showy at all, but those are the flowers that will produce the fruit,” Murphy says. “Along the edges are these big, showy, flowerlike structures, but they are sterile.

“They are like big neon signs. They serve as a way to get the insect’s attention to get them to come over and pollinate the ones that are in the middle.”

Sometimes the trick lies with getting the seeds dispersed so the plant can spread.

“Another adaptation is seeds that have hooked hairs or bristles that are on the actual seed structure that cling to our clothing and to the fur of animals,” he says.

“Tick trefoils, tickseeds, black snakeroots — and bedstraws are one of the worst,” Murphy says.

Some rely on other organisms in different ways.

“Trilliums have this structure on the seeds called laiosome,” he says. “It’s on the outside of the seed coat and is rich in oil, lipids and is very nutritious — ants absolutely love that coating on the seed.

“When the fruiting structure falls off or ants climb up the trillium, they take the seeds back to their nest, where they feed it to their young. But they don’t eat the seed per se. They just want the coating. They just discard the seeds in their waste chambers and it helps disperse the trillium seeds.”

The seeds then germinate in the rich waste bins.

Some plants work the night shift.

“Evening primrose and catchfly bloom exclusively at night, taking advantage of pollinators that are active at night — like moths,” says Murphy.

In some cases, it is hard to figure out how certain plants survived at all.

Orchids require special microorganisms to be present in the soil to help their seeds germinate. Those searching for the Great Plains ladies’ tresses orchid need only follow their noses. The delicate flower gives off a scent that has been described as similar to vanilla or almonds. The spiraling flowers can be found in some high-quality prairies in late summer and early fall.

Another plant appreciated for its artistry is Culver’s root, a prairie and savanna resident. Culver’s root flowers on candelabra spikes that sometimes curve and twist.

The silphiums are a special group of tall and distinct plants that are signature members of the tall-grass prairie.

One of those is prairie dock. Its large, rough leaves grow near the ground. A narrow stalk with tiny yellow flowers towers above the summer prairie.

Compass plant is known for the tendency of its leaves to orient themselves north and south. Settlers were said to have steered by the compass plant.

Murphy says the general orientation of the leaves allows the plants to gather sunlight for the maximum number of hours a day, but still avoid the harshest, direct sun of a midsummer day by turning the leaf’s edge to the blazing sun as it crosses the southern sky.

Prairies were especially known for diversity, with as many as 200 to 300 species of plants making up distinct “communities” that were supported by thousands of insects, a multitude of birds, a host of reptiles and amphibians and even larger grazing animals like bison.

“And all of that is right here in central Illinois,” Murphy says. “It’s just neat to focus on what people can see here. And this is where we want them to get out and appreciate and care for their natural heritage.”

Chris Young can be reached or 788-1528.