Mark Moffett is an award-winning biologist and photographer who has spent a lot time at the tops of trees studying ecosystems in forest canopies. He talks about his work in a "Best of National Geographic" podcast, and relates a wonderful story about his favourite jungle beast. Surprisingly, it’s not a cute furry animal, but a plant. Not even an exotic plant, but the common monsteras and philodendrons that we’ve seen time and time again in dentist offices, the ones we grow in our own living rooms. These seemingly innocuous houseplants have amazing lives.
Photo credit: wikipedia.org
These plants have amazing lives. Moffett describes how birds drop philodendron seed from the trees, and the seedling begins to grow on the dark forest floor. It detects and is guided by subtle differences in the colours around it, almost as though it has eyes. The seedling continues to grow and make its way toward the nearest tree trunk, and when it reaches the tree, the philodendron starts climbing. When the plant is about two to three yards long, it drops its connection with the earth; the bottom rots and falls off, leaving an unanchored plant clinging to the tree trunk.
Then, incredibly, the philodendron – which remains a couple of yards long – starts wandering through the tree, almost like a snake. While it’s in the shade, the leaves remain very small and the plant keeps moving along by growing quickly. When it reaches a sunny spot in the tree, its growth slows down dramatically and the leaves grow to large sizes; the philodendron stops and basks in the sun. If the plant reaches a fork and doesn’t know which way to go, it will send shoots in both directions, and then pick one. When it reaches the top of the tree, it drops a terminal shoot and tries to cross over to the next tree. If it falls to the ground, it doesn’t die like a normal plant would; it simply uncoils and starts making its way to the nearest tree to start the climb all over again.
All right, all right. Don’t fret about waking up and finding your philodendron wrapped around your neck. This all takes a couple of years and steamy rainforest conditions. But it is very cool, n’est ce pas?
As for the podcast… well, I’ve just posted the spoiler for that particular interview, but it’s worth a download for the National Geographic theme song anyway. Love that theme song.