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Naturally Occurring Bonsai or Environmentally Dwarfed Plants
Let’s talk about naturally occurring Bonsai, or environmental dwarf plants. We will take the example of a plant growing on the side of a mountain. This article is not intended as a scientific paper, so I have no need, much less desire, to go into every variation of every sub-topic.
Any plant, given the required growing conditions, will survive, if not flowering, for the expected number of years for that particular species, if not longer. However, before a plant seed can germinate, it requires: soil, sunlight, moisture in some form, and nutrients. Also, the seed before emergencies must face:
– extremes of temperature and exposure,
-inappropriate final resting place (in a tree, cave, between a rock and a solid place, etc.),
– lack of available moisture,
– Unsuitable types of soil,
-and being consumed by any of a host of other elements in nature, by: birds and animals large (bears) or small (rodents), insects, bacteria, mold, fungi in general and various other pathogens.
An experiment was conducted in the 80s, using 1 1/2 kilograms of irradiated (for tracking purposes) seed (the size of the seed is about the size of a pinhead) from a species of river casuarina. This species grows at the water’s edge and most of the tree hangs over the water. Most of the seed was released at tree height (av. 20ft) into the river, as this is the natural seeding event of the plant, with wind playing a major role. From this release and up to 5 years later, it was found that 3 trees had survived. Think about it, 1 1/2 pounds of seed the size of a pinhead. That’s a lot of seed that didn’t make it, under optimal circumstances.
This simple fact of seed predation and randomness in nature is why plants are such prolific seed producers. Big chance of something surviving – it’s just a jungle out there.
Now, provided the seed lands where it can and survives, that’s all well and good. What about our misery in the mountains? Multiply the chances of crashing exponentially. So how can a plant survive in this situation?
In harsh environments, a plant requires several tricks to survive:
Germination and establishment speed:
Once the right conditions are met, they can only be transitory. If, a plant sits – in the manure of a rock, in stable soil, with little moisture, thus taking care of most requirements, this may be the only day of the year that it actually rains. Germination and establishment of the seed should be fast, under unfavorable conditions.
An adaptation to the process of germination and establishment involves the development of roots. This is the main central root from which the smaller branch roots originate. In harsh environments, this root will be the first part of the plant to develop, hydrating as much of the available soil depth as possible, as quickly as possible. This not only allows for a more durable plant, but just as importantly, it allows access to moisture and nutrient reserves that are not available to plants with a smaller root system.
There are places on earth that experience the full range of seasonal weather in one day. Melbourne, Australia, immediately comes to mind. On the side of a mountain, depending on the aspect to the sun, a plant may very well experience freezing temperatures at night and scorching throughout the day.
To survive this, plants through natural selection have evolved a number of defensive adaptations to compensate. This can take the form of:
– a waxy layer on the leaves that minimizes water loss,
– a covering of hairs on leaves to reflect or dissipate heat,
-modified leaves or needles, reducing leaf surface and water loss,
-Rhizomatous root systems, deep mushroom-shaped roots to escape such extremes,
-smaller leaves to reduce moisture loss,
-and the latex-like liquid, further reducing evaporation, flavoring the plants, and in some cases, acting as a type of antifreeze.
Let’s not forget annuals and perennial herbs. In harsh environments, once the conditions are right, annuals can grow, flower, set seed, then die, all within a few weeks, and repeat the process only the following year. Herbaceous perennials will die back to ground level, perhaps with a rhizome, to counteract the effects of expansion and contraction due to freezing and thawing.
There are many plants that deter predators, especially grazers, by having unsightly leaves. This can take the form of thorns, toxic fluids, etc. Or for that matter, the complete inaccessibility of the plant.
If the plant has found a foothold in a place that meets all the requirements, but is regularly subject to destabilizing winds, adaptation can take the form of the plant’s growth pattern or shape. These plants will regularly grow either very low to the ground, or actually along it, to reduce wind resistance. The shape of the plant creates a better environment for continuous growth, and the subsequent shading of the soil can greatly help in conserving or recovering moisture.
Some species, such as juniper and cypress, will readily lose bark on the windward side of the trunk, sometimes surviving with only a thin vein of stable bark feeding the tree. Hmm, starting to look like a bonsai.
No plant will survive without some form of nutrient. Once again, in harsh environments, this comes down to chance. If a base is found in the manure of a rock, there is a much greater probability of available nutrients, as due to the action of wind and rain, organic waste will accumulate in these places, eventually breaking down to form a rare type of compost. Certainly not enough to grow vegetables, but enough to support a plant that already knows what a rock and a hard place is.
As these hardy plants develop, so the actual act of survival becomes a little easier. Branches are tempting for critters to land on, adding to their droppings, as will the fact of shelter provided. A larger plant will hold much more moisture in relation to its leaves and branches, either after rains or from morning dews. This moisture, when located on leaves or waxy needles, will then drain to the drop line, further increasing moisture levels and the chance of survival.
Animals may burrow under or around the plant, mixing manure, soil, minerals and organic matter as they do so. All of this may sound just peachy for the plant in question, however, improving the physical aspects of where it grows will not turn it into a Christmas tree. The deciding factor is still the environment. Improved habitat will keep it alive, longer.
Most of the above happens gradually, on a molecular scale and is therefore very slow. The fact that a plant that survives an adverse environment looks really, really ancient – maybe it is. The rapid growth is soft, juicy, fully exposed and in no way can withstand the ravages of harsh environments.
That is why, under those conditions, the plants become natural Bonsai, or environmental dwarf plants. It is simply a matter of survival.
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