Botanical Barbarity: 9 Plant Defense Mechanisms

There’s no brain in a cabbage. That’s axiomatic. But the lack of a central nervous system doesn’t prevent them, or other plants, from protecting themselves. Some species boast armature such as thorns, or spines that ward off slavering herbivores. Some are loaded with poisons to sicken or kill them. And while tomatoes may not be able to scream, as L. Ron Hubbard once claimed, some plants do emit compounds that warn their compatriots of approaching threats: the botanical equivalent of a smoke signal. Rooted to the fundament though they may be, they’re not just vegetative victims content to idly watch their hard-won greenery masticated into oblivion and ejected from the back end of some lazy cud-chewer.

  • Thorn

    Thorns are basically pointy branches or stems. Their defensive function is somewhat self-evident: they’re stabby. And contrary to what (the band) Poison would have you believe, not a single rose has one. See the next item for explanation. (As to the sad, sad songwriting abilities of cowboys, I can’t say either way.)

  • Prickle

    Roses actually have prickles, not thorns. Unlike thorns, prickles are actually pointed protuberances from a plant’s epidermis. Think of them as razor-sharp freckles. While they shield the plants that bear them from some depredations, certain species of planthopper, small enough to squeeze between them and slurp up sap, actually mimic their spiky appearance to avoid predators.

  • Spine

    Stabbiness comes in handy when you’re a plant…leaves (and the related stipules) have evolved to draw blood, too. Many plants have spines, but they are perhaps most memorably marshalled by the cacti, who sport them in abundance. Spines not only defend the juicy stems of cacti against ravenous succulent-eaters, but also shade them from the relentless desert sun. (Cacti that grow in non-desert environs wear a lighter covering of spines.)

  • Trichome

    If you’ve ever had the misfortune of brushing against a stinging nettle, you know the pain-inducing power of the tiny trichome. Nettles and other plants grow a bristling fur of these pointed structures to shield themselves from browsing. Had the proverbial “very hungry caterpillar” made the mistake of wandering onto a trichome-bearing plant, he wouldn’t have been hungry for much longer. He would have been impaled, or eviscerated. Some plants—like the nettle—have associated glands that inject poison into the trichome-inflicted wounds. Some tropical nettles can cause permanent nerve damage…or death.

  • Idioblast

    Not all plants bear their defenses on the surface. If thorns, spines, prickles, and trichomes are the spear brigade, idioblasts are the landmines. Specialized cells that contain a variety of defensive compounds, from razor-sharp crystals to pain-inducing chemicals, idioblasts detonate when the first line of defense has been breached. The dieffenbachia, a common houseplant, contains idioblasts that fire barbed calcium oxalate crystals into the mouths of predators and then release an enzyme analogous to reptilian venom. This can cause paralysis—and thus loss of speech—hence the common name “dumb cane.”

  • Mutualism

    Some plants have opted to hire mercenaries. Several species of South American and African acacia tree both house and feed aggressive ants. The stinging little soldiers make their barracks inside swollen thorns and feed off of food bodies produced by the plant especially for them. The ants savagely defend their “giving trees” against all comers, be they animal, vegetable, or fungus. They even snip off the foliage of any other plants that have the nerve to encroach upon their acacia’s personal space. In experiments where the ant colonies were removed, the trees died.

  • Crypsis

    The sensitive plant (Mimosa pudica) closes its leaves when they are touched, making them appear dead and therefore unappetizing. These plants are often sold as curiosities and featured at botanical gardens. Watching plants react in real-time serves as a visceral and memorable demonstration of the fact that plants are, in fact, animate. Erasmus Darwin—grandfather of Charles—said in The Botanic Garden: “[plants] possess ideas…of…many of the properties of the external world, and of their own existence.” Darwin may go a step too far here, but his observations indicate that the notion of plants as being in some way more than just lumps of passive herbage is far from novel.

  • Chemical signaling

    Plants that are attacked by browsers or insect pests or subjected to stressful conditions such as drought or microbial infection may warn other plants of the impending crises by releasing volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which precipitate physiological reactions in nearby plants. They may increase concentrations of toxic compounds to ward off the enemy, or they may release compounds of their own that attract the enemy’s predators. Some recent experiments have shown that plants also communicate through chemicals released by their roots and even via networks of fungal symbionts.

  • Poison

    Everyone knows that some plants are poisonous. But what constitutes a “poison” to one organism may very well be an inert compound to another. Birds, for example, are unfazed by urushiol, the toxic oil produced by poison ivy, and in fact seem to love the berries produced by the plants. Monarch butterfly caterpillars chomp on milkweed and sequester the glycosides produced by the plant in their own tissues, making them poisonous to predators. Of course, humans have turned all manner of plant poisons to their own devious ends, from the chrysanthemum-derived pyrethrins used as insecticides to the castor bean-derived ricin, which Walter White of Breaking Bad attempted to use to eliminate his enemies on several occasions (and which was successfully used in the 1978 assassination of a Bulgarian writer).


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