The Body Language Of Plants

How do you know what a plant needs?

If it’s not looking too good what’s wrong with it. When and how do you prune it.

These are the sort of questions that make inexperienced gardeners nervous, and poorly trained gardeners reach for the text book answer. The answer to all these kinds of questions in the first instance should be, “I don’t know”. What is required is a careful look at the body language of that plant.

All plants function in a broadly similar way despite their great variety. It is a sophisticated system that supports their growth, survival and reproduction. From the tiny daisy to the giant Redwood, the same thing is going on. It’s just happening at different scales of size. This isn’t hard to visualise when you think that our body systems are the same as a mouse and an elephant. Again its a matter of scale and relatively minor variation.

When you start to view plants as individual living organisms that share a universal and sophisticated  function and survival system, then it’s much easier to see what’s going on with a plant, and what, if anything it needs from you the gardener.

And this is where  ‘the body language of plants’ comes in. I’m trying to think of a phase that doesn’t use the word ‘body’ but makes sense.  ‘Plant language’ isn’t right, and ‘structural language’ sounds like the description of a building. So for want of a better phrase, body language it is.

To be continued

The Body Language Of Plants (Part 2)

We can use the body language of plants in order to understand what is going on with any individual plant.  To do this you need some basic plant knowledge, observation skills and a bit of common sense. It helps to add empathy and intuition to that list because then you are using the full range of human abilities in your diagnosis and treatment. But that’s another post another day.

The most fundamental principle is very simple:

A plant is a living being that exists and endeavours to survive and reproduce just like all living things from human beings to polar bears and ants. And like the differences between mammals, (think polar bears and humans), different plants have evolved into different types, with different preferences and habits, depending upon where the plant originates from, and how it has adapted over the millenia to those particular conditions.

If a plant is looking sickly, the chances are it doesn’t have the right growing conditions for it to maintain a healthy life. Put a polar bear in the South of France and it will not do too well. Put a human in the Arctic and it will find things pretty difficult also.  Equally a Norwegian Arctic poppy will not survive in California, and an Orange tree won’t survive in the Arctic. That’s all pretty obvious.

However plants, like all things do make valiant efforts to survive under adverse conditions, and that is when you see plants looking sickly or growing in strange and unexpected ways. When they can’t get what they need, plants go to great lengths to compensate by various strategies. Two of the most common tactics involve growing sideways to reach the light or losing leaves to reduce water loss.

Something that fascinates me is the fact that  plants are geared to produce masses of seed when they are about to die. This implies an awareness of  impending death, and a last great effort to ensure a new generation of plants to continue the species. 

The Body Language Of Plants (Part 3)

When a plant, be it a tree or a Dahlia loses it’s leaves, you are witnessing an act of survival, not one of despair.

When needing a period of rest, or if under continuing stress, plants shut down all unnecessary activities in order to conserve energy. To the human eye, the most obvious sign that this is happening is the shedding of leaves.

When you see this you have to ask yourself: Is this normal leaf fall or stress leaf fall. Normal leaf fall occurs at different times depending upon whether the plant is deciduous or evergreen.

In fall or autumn deciduous trees, shrubs and perennial plants shed their leaves in order to start their rest period as the daylight hours shorten and the temperature cools. However it’s in mid-summer that evergreens shed their leaves and replace them with new. Our Bay trees are right in the middle of this messy business even as I write this post.

Stress leaf shedding can be for any number of reasons: drought, water-logging, root damage, pollution, and other factors that may not be immediately obvious.

Having established that your plant is acting intelligently in order to either rest and renew or preserve itself from adverse conditions, the next thing to do is check the obvious. Obviously it helps if you have planted something in conditions that it prefers, but if the plant is struggling to grow in the wrong environment, or stressed by extreme weather or pollution events you have to see if there is anything that you can do to reduce the stress.

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