Since plants are unable to relocate, they must adapt to their surroundings.
Before we start exploring plant adaptations, let’s make one thing clear: plants (as far as we know) do not ‘decide’ to do anything. Genetic mutations are happening all the time. In some cases, a mutation occurs that makes a living thing better suited to its surroundings. Plants that develop beneficial mutations live long enough to reproduce, while those that don’t, well, they don’t.
It’s a basic rule of evolution: What works, is. What doesn’t, isn’t.
Types of adaptations
Plant adaptations are categorized as behavioral, physiological, or structural. These adaptations can make a plant better suited to its environment, more likely to get the food and water it needs, or better able to ensure genetic survival of its species.
The easiest way to see a variety of plant adaptations is to look at the ways plants adapt to their surroundings. Depending on where a plant grows, certain adaptations can come in handy.
Biomes are large, naturally occurring communities of plants and animals found in a specific environment. Each biome has its own characteristics that require different adaptations for a plant species to survive and thrive.
Deserts - Scorching heat makes water retention a priority. Succulents store water in their leaves; waxy cuticles reduce water loss; leaves stay small; flowers bloom quickly after a rain; deep roots find underground water; fast-acting surface roots collect dew and rainfall before it evaporates; hairy leaves help shade the plant; spines reduce grazing; and blooming at night attracts pollinators that are not active during the day.
Grasslands - Hot summers, cold winters, and the threat of fire encourage adaptations such as: deep, extensive root systems; narrow leaves that retain water; soft stems that bend in the wind; and plants that grow from their crown, rather than from stem tips.
Taiga, or boreal forests - Cold winters, swampy soil with poor drainage, and areas of permafrost make being an evergreen a good idea: waxy, needlelike leaves lose less water; drooping branches shed snow more easily; and coloration is usually dark, to absorb more heat.
Temperate deciduous forests - Four distinct seasons and plenty of rain make for tall trees: thick bark; shade-tolerant shrubs; flowers that bloom early in the season, before tree leaves block sunlight; broad tree leaves capture plenty of sunlight and then are dropped before snow can weigh them down.
Temperate rain forests - Heavy rain and steady, cool temperatures make growing slow business: many plants, such as moss, grow on other plants, helping them reach sunlight; tree seedlings often start growing on dead nurse logs, which provide added nutrients.
Tropical rainforest - Heat and heavy rain are a recipe for pests, diseases, and leaching: these plants use rapid growth, climbing growth behaviors, or other plants (epiphytes) to get at the sunlight; trees tend to have smooth bark, making it difficult for vines to climb and choke them; drooping leaf tips reduce standing water; and above ground roots provide added stability.
Tundra - Dry, cold conditions make it a good idea to stay low and close to the ground for warmth: fuzzy stems and leaves provide wind protection; dark flowers absorb more heat.
Water - Plants living in water tend to have flexible stems and floating leaves and seeds.
In some situations, plant nutrients are scarce. Some plants, such as legumes, are able to harvest nitrogen from the atmosphere, while other, such as Venus flytrap and pitcher plants, attract and trap insects for their food. How bizarre is that?
Now for the really fun stuff. These plants have managed some extreme adaptations. We will start with the Welwitschia, or onion of the desert. Found in Namibia, the Welwitschia has leaves that can be 13 feet long and a stem that can grow to 6 feet in height and over 20 feet in diameter! This plant can live for up to 1500 years, even if it only gets rain every 4 or 5 years.
Another adaptive oddity is the Corpse Plant (Rafflesia Arnoldii). The Corpse Plant produces the biggest (up to 3 feet across) and stinkiest (hence the name) flower known.
Another stinky specimen of similar name, the Corpse Flower, or carrion flower (Amorphophallus titanum) may look lovely, but the stench is said to be awful. Those smells may attract pollinators, but I think I’ll pass on trying them in my garden!
Living in a drought prone area, I think I’d much prefer Madagascar’s endangered Bottle Tree, or baobab (Adansonia grandidieri). When it rains, the bottle tree absorbs as much water as it can, up to 30,000 gallons! These trees can grow to nearly 100 feet tall.
Finally, one small African flower, the Parachute Plant (Ceropegia linearis), attracts pollinator insects and then pulls its petals together, temporarily trapping the insect. As the insect walks around, seeking an exit, pollination occurs.
There is probably no limit to the number of ways a plant can adapt.
What are the plants in your garden doing to adapt? And how can you help them?
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!