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Naturally Occurring Bonsai or Environmentally Dwarfed Plants
Let’s talk about naturally occurring bonsai or environmental dwarf plants. As an example, we will take a plant growing attached to a mountainside. This article is not intended to be a scholarly article, so I have no need, much less desire, to delve into every variation of every subtopic.
Given the required growing conditions, each plant will survive, if not flower, the expected number of years for the species, if not longer. But before a plant seed can even germinate, it needs: soil, sunlight, moisture in a certain form and nutrients. In addition, the previously formed seed must contend with:
– extreme temperatures and exposure,
– inadequate resting place (in a tree, cave, between a rock and an anvil, etc.),
– lack of available moisture,
– inappropriate types of soil,
-and are consumed by any of the myriad other elements in nature, from: large birds and animals (bears) or small (rodents), insects, bacteria, mold, fungi in general, and various other pathogens.
An experiment was carried out in the 1980s, using 1 1/2 kilograms of irradiated (for tracking purposes) seed (the size of a seed is about the size of a boletus head) from a species of river casuarina. This species grows at the water’s edge and the bulk of the tree hangs over the water. Most of the seed was released at tree height (average 20 feet) into the river, as this is a natural seeding event for the plant, with wind playing an important role. From this publication and up to 5 years after, 3 trees were found to have survived. Think about it, 1 1/2 pounds of seed the size of a pumpkin head. That’s a lot of seed that failed under optimal circumstances.
This simple fact of seed predation and chance in nature is why plants are such prolific seed producers. The sheer chance that anything really survives – it’s just a jungle out there.
Now, if the seed lands where it has a chance and survives, that’s all well and good. What about our poor man on the mountain? Exponentially multiply the chances of being knocked down. So how can a plant survive in this situation?
In harsh environments, the plant needs a few tricks to survive:
Germination and rooting speed:
When the right conditions are met, they can only be fleeting. If the plant lands – in the lee of the rock, on capable soil, with some moisture, and thus takes care of most of its needs, this may be the only day of the year when it actually rains. Seed germination and rooting must be fast, in unfavorable conditions.
One adaptation to the process of germination and rooting involves the development of taproots. This is the main central root from which smaller branch roots originate. In a harsh environment, this taproot will be the first part of the plant to develop, so it will quickly take up as much of the available soil depth as possible. Not only does this allow for a more stable plant, but importantly, it provides access to moisture and nutrient stores not available to plants with less root systems.
There are places on earth that experience the full range of seasonal weather in one day. Melbourne, Australia immediately comes to mind. On a mountainside, depending on the aspect relative to the sun, the plant may very well experience low temperatures overnight and scorching during the day.
To survive this, plants through natural selection have developed many protective adaptations to compensate. This can take the form of:
– a wax-like coating on the leaves that reduces water loss,
– a cover with hairs on the leaves for reflection or heat dissipation,
– modified leaves or needles that reduce leaf surface area and water loss,
– rhizomatous root systems, cave-like roots, deeply buried to avoid such extremes,
– smaller leaves to reduce moisture loss,
-and a latex-like sap that further reduces evaporation, palatability of plants and in some cases acts as a kind of antifreeze.
Let’s not forget annuals and herbaceous perennials. In harsh environments, when conditions are right, annuals can grow, flower, set seed, then die, all in a matter of weeks, only to repeat the process the following year. Herbaceous perennials will die back to the ground, preferably with the rhizome, to prevent the spreading and shrinking effects of freezing and thawing.
There are many plants that prevent predation, especially grazers, by using inappropriate leaves. This can be in the form of spines, poisonous juice, etc. Or due to the sheer inaccessibility of the plant.
If the plant has found a foothold in a place that meets all the requirements, but is regularly exposed to destabilizing winds, the adaptation may be in the form of the growth pattern or the shape of the plant. These plants will regularly grow very low to the ground or actually along the ground to reduce wind resistance. The shape of the plant creates a better environment for further growth, and subsequent shading of the soil can go a long way in saving or restoring moisture.
Some species, such as juniper and cypress, lose bark easily on the windward side of the trunk and sometimes survive with only a thin vein of viable bark supporting the tree. Hmm, it’s starting to look like a bonsai tree.
No plant will survive without some form of nutrient. Again, in harsh environments this is a coincidence. If the substrate is found in the lee of the rock, there is a much greater likelihood of available nutrients, as wind and rain will accumulate organic detritus in these places, which will eventually break down to form a rare type of compost. Certainly not enough to grow vegetables, but just enough to maintain a plant that already knows what rock and anvil are.
As these hardy plants develop, the actual act of survival becomes a little easier. The branches are inviting for critters to land on, add their dung, the fact of shelter provided will do the same. A larger plant will retain much more moisture on its leaves and branches, whether after rain or morning dew. Once this moisture is on the wax leaves or needles, it will then be released to the drip line, further increasing the moisture level and the chance of survival.
Animals can burrow under or around the plant, mixing manure, soil, minerals and organic matter in the process. All of this may sound pretty awful for the plant in question, but improving the physical aspects of where it grows won’t turn it into a Christmas tree. The deciding factor is still the environment. An improved habitat will keep him alive longer.
Most of the above happens gradually, at the molecular level, and is therefore painfully slow. The fact that a plant that survives an adverse environment looks really, really, ancient – is probably because it is. The rapid growth is soft, full of juice, fully exposed, and cannot withstand the destruction of a harsh environment in any way.
Therefore, under these conditions, the plants become naturally occurring bonsai or environmental dwarf plants. It is purely about survival.
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