Sunday, June 29, 2014

Mid-winter and the minds of plants

Apart from a rogue frost early in May, Winter's taken its time getting to Lalor. Finally, this week, the winds tugged the russety leaves off our plum, Melbun's specialty, the cold needly thin rain that doesn't quite soak the soil, set in, and the cats started cuddling the heater for six hours in a row.

Winter Solstice backyard action. L to R in a sort of clockwise direction: newly leafless Japanese quince, fly screen being used to protect potato patch from chickens, cumquat shortly after removal of three kilos of cumquats, fancy-pants chook-proof corrugated iron raised veg bed, water chestnut bowl with the blanched water chestnut reeds still in, bunked down for Winter beehive under plum tree, kiwi-fruit archway, globe artichoke having the best time everrrrr, dude, purple salvia getting in some late June florescence before anyone tells it its meant to look spindly and sad at this time of year.

I worry sometimes about how our plants read the increasingly erratic weather. Last year, after a horrifically dry Summer, one of the apple trees produced a spray of (Spring) blossom - in Autumn. The blossom set fruit and we had to pull the hard green little apples off so that the tree wouldn't waste energy on them over Winter. Beekeepers in central Victoria have been talking about the gum trees going on strike. This year (not so bad for us, really), we have Autumn-raspberries fruiting in mid-Winter.

Autumn Bliss Raspberry, considering changing its name to Depths-of-Winter Fruit.

And our Autumn-flowering rosemary seems to be flowering at the tippy end of June, tempting the bees out of bed, when we thought we'd set them up to stay indoors and quaff honey til late August.

Rosemary of Bee Temptation.

I heard a really very fabulous paper recently by an evolutionary biologist, Monica Gagliano, who has discovered that plants can learn. She's worked with mimosas, a plant that has evolved to fold in its leaves when touched, exposing its spines and making its green bits look less appetising to vegetarians. In the act of repulsing herbivores, though, it reduces its own opportunity to photosynthesise. Monica designed training that would help the mimosa to refine its risk/benefit analysis.

She dropped potted mimosas repeatedly. At first the individual plants folded up their leaves in response to being dropped, but over repeated drops they learnt that being dropped didn't result in herbivore attack, and they stopped folding in their leaves. Weeks later, Monica subjected the plants to various agitations - touching, dropping - and found that although they were still sensitive to touching, they had lost their sensitivity to being dropped. That is to say, they had learnt that dropping didn't warrant giving up on opportunities to catch sunlight, and they remembered their lesson through time.

So, individual plants can learn and adapt, which is glorious, amazing, challenges all my ideas about how mind works and what plants are. But it also makes extra poignant the fact that the messages the plants are getting these days are so mixed, and the lessons so one-offish (floods one year, droughts the next).

For now, though, it's working out quite well for us plant-eaters. I brought in this ridiculous haul of backyard fruit on Saturday - a week after the Solstice.

 Fruit! Raspberries conspicuously absent (someone may have eaten them before they made it inside).

So, citrus, tamarillos and over-the-hill feijoas. Some kind of Winter we've got here.

Bonus chicken photo.


  1. Winter is a tad weird up here. The crocus has been and gone. Jonquils are flowering. Daffodils in bud. Hyacinth ditto. And it is only this week that the cats have gone outside, said 'sod that for a game of soldiers' and come inside to demand the heater.

  2. Hope the flowers don't get singed by a late Can'bran frost. I noticed almond blossoms out in Melbourne today - first week of July! - eek!