If you pick a dandelion, you will see a viscous, milky white goo come out of the stem. That goo is latex. Exposed to the air, latex coagulates, creating a protective barrier. Plants use latex as a defense against insect feeding. [Slugs will eat leaves drained of latex, but not before.] We use latex in very different ways.
Latex gloves, latex paint, and cosmetic sponges all get their start from latex. So do chewing gum, balloons, adhesives, and opium. The latex collected from the rubber tree is where we get, you guessed it, rubber. [Most latex paint, such as is used in whitewashing, is actually a synthetic latex.] It is estimated that 10% of all flowering plants, angiosperms, contain latex.
What is latex?
Latex is an emulsion made up of of proteins, fats, starches, sugars, oils, resins, alkaloids, tannins, and gums. Emulsions are mixtures of two or more liquids that generally do not mix - think salad dressing. Homogenized milk and mayonnaise are also emulsions. Normally, latex is thick and white, but it can also be yellow, clear, orange, red, or watery.
How is latex different from sap, or resin?
Sap is the combined water, sugars, and plant nutrients that move through a plant’s vascular bundles to feed and water the plant. Resins, like latex, are protective substances that ooze from injury sites. Unlike latex, which coagulates and dries, resins create a hard, crystalline barrier.
How do plants make latex?
Latex is produced and transported in a separate system called the laticiferous system. There are two methods of latex formation and movement. Articulated laticifers consist of rows of plant cells found in the meristem tissue of stems and roots. The walls of these cells dissolve, creating tubes, called latex vessels. This method is common to poppies, fig trees, mulberries, rubber trees, and members of the sunflower family. Non-articulated laticifers, such as milkweed and spurge, develop a branching network of latex-producing cells throughout the plant. In some cases, the entire network is made from a single cell.
Plants that produce latex
There are over 20,000 species of plant that produce latex, occurring in over 40 plant families. Some of the more commonly known latex-producing families include:
Some mushroom, conifer, and fern species also produce latex as a defense mechanism.
Allergic reactions to latex
Because latex contains defensive chemicals, it can be an irritant. Prolonged exposure can lead to an allergic response, as can multiple surgeries, or spina bifida. Individuals with a latex allergy are at risk for anaphylactic shock and should avoid contact. Some forms of latex can cause blistering of the skin, or blindness, while other plants produce a latex with reduced amounts of the allergen. These forms are being researched as an alternative.
As you work in the garden, note which plants exude latex when damaged. And monitor your skin for reactions to this liquid plant defense.
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!