Plant prickles are skin spikes.
Unlike thorns, which are modified shoots, and spines, made from modified leaves, prickles are spiked skin extensions.
Because prickles are made out of epidermis and cortex tissue, they can occur anywhere on a plant. This is also what differentiates them from the hairs (trichomes) growing on your squash plant leaves. Trichomes only contain epidermis tissue, whereas prickles contain both epidermis and cortex.
The purpose of prickles
The most obvious purpose of prickles is to make plants less palatable to herbivores. Chewing on a stem covered with prickles can’t be very appealing. In extreme cases, such as the silk floss tree, the entire trunk is covered with massive prickles. I suppose that’s the level of protection needed in rural South America.
While prickles are generally meant to keep herbivores away, most species specific pollinators have learned to maneuver around the prickles without too much trouble. Prickles can also provide limited amounts of shade or insulation from temperature extremes.
A rose by any other pokey bit
Everyone calls the sharp bits on rose stems thorns, but they are actually prickles. One easy way to tell if a protuberance is a prickle, thorn, or spine, is by how easy it is to remove. Spines and thorns contain vascular bundles, but prickles do not.
This is why it is so easy to flick a rose thorn from its stem, while trying the same trick on your orange tree won’t work. Orange tree thorns have added strength from the phloem and xylem, carrying water and nutrients into the pointy protuberance. Thorns do not have that type of attachment, so they are easier to remove.
So, now you know the difference between thorns and prickles.
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