From time to time, I like to write an article about the oddness of some leaves. Here’s yet another, about plants whose leaves actually move.
Leaves Move All the Time
The truth is, leaves that move are not that unusual. They notably move in the wind, or when touched by rain drops or brushed against. However, there are extraneous movements: the plant isn’t moving on its own, it is being moved. That said, many plants do have leaves that move themselves. You’ll learn more about them by reading the following text.
Movement for Protection
Many plants have leaves that curl up or roll down under stressful conditions—drought or cold, for example—but recover afterward. The resurrection fern (Pleopeltis polypodioides, syn. Polypodium polypodioides) can survive without a drop of water for many months, even years, then its apparently dead fronds become completely green and functional within 24 hours after a good soaking. Two other resurrection plants are the rose of Jericho (Selaginella lepidophylla) and the alpine gesneriad ramonda (Ramonda spp.).
As for movement to improve cold resistance, the thick leaves of many hardy rhododendrons (Rhododendron spp.) lose most of their moisture and both curl and hang limply all winter, giving their owners quite a scare, yet recover fully when spring returns. It’s thought this habit helps keep frost crystals from forming and damaging leaf cells.
Turning Towards the Sun
On most plants, leaves will turn to face the direction of the sun, at least to some degree. If you transplant or otherwise move a plant—or even if you just cut an overhanging branch that was blocking the sun!—the leaf will adjust, changing its position, usually quite slowly, over days or weeks. This is particularly easy to observe on a forest edge where most light comes from the side or on a windowsill in your home if you don’t give your houseplants the traditional quarter turn regularly: most of the leaves will clearly orient towards the light. This habit of growing towards the source of light is called phototropism. (Remember that term from school?)
Other plants have the curious habits of folding their leaves at night, either upward or downward, a phenomenon called nyctinasty. It’s actually very common in some plant families, such as the legume family (Fabaceae) and the oxalis family (Oxalidaceae). You may have noticed this in clover (Trifolium) or false shamrock (Oxalis triangularis), but the best-known nyctinastic plant is the popular houseplant known as the prayer plant (Maranta leuconeura), whose leaves fold up at night like hands in prayer.
This kind of movement is caused by a hinge-like structure at the base of the leaf or leaflet called the pulvinus (plural: pulvini) that is filled with water during the day, but drains at night, so that the resulting lack of turgor causes the leaf to fold.
Scientists still debate why plants do this.
Plants That Dance
There are plants that, under the appropriate conditions, take the concept of nyctinasty one step further. They too have pulvini and do close at night, but during the day, seem to be constantly readjusting themselves. The fire fern (Oxalis hedysaroides ‘Rubra’), not a fern at all, is a red-leaved oxalis sometimes grown as a houseplant, one of these “dancing plants.”
The telegraph plant (formerly Desmodium gyrans, now Codariocalyx motorius), is another occasional houseplant with seemly motorized leaves.
Both plants will only perform when conditions are fairly warm and humid, but if you sit in from of one and watch patiently, you’ll see each leaf seems to be slowly moving, giving the impression the plant is lazily dancing. The fire fern will also react to touch, at least to a slight degree, but more about touch sensitive plants later.
The tropical fruit carambola or starfruit (Averrhoa carambola), in the Oxalidaceae, likewise has leaflets that both close up at night and move visibly, although slowly, during the day, all on their own … if you watch them patiently!
Response to Touch
Plants that react to touch are certainly the weirdest of all plants with leaves that move. This phenomenon, known as thigmonasty or seismonasty, occurs when something touches or shakes the leaf. And some will also react when you hold a match up to them. This can be incredibly rapid and is certainly visible. Again, all these plants close up at night and, again, it’s pulvinus at the leaf or leaflet’s base that empties rapidly, causing the leaf folding. Studies show that there is even an electrical current that runs between the pulvini on many of these plants, almost like nerves in animals, plus there is also a chemical reaction involved.
The best known thigmonastic plant is the sensitive plant (Mimosa pudica), a legume also known as sleepy plant, dormilona, touch-me-not or shy plant, a decent if usually short-lived houseplant easy to grow from seed … and also a pernicious and quite prickly weed in tropical countries. A light touch will cause a single leaflet of the bipinnately compound leaf to fold inward, a firmer touch will lead to the whole leaf drooping and shaking the plant will cause all its leaves to collapse. If you run a finger down the leaf, the leaflets will close like dominoes, as in the photo below. Yet if you leave the leaf alone, it will recover in just 15 to 30 minutes.
It’s thought this quick reaction to touch helps prevent foraging by grazing animals. I mean, wouldn’t you stop eating if you thought you were biting into a luscious plant, then the leaves all collapsed after your tongue touched the first one, leaving the plant looking barren, unappetizing and full of (previously hidden) thorns?
M. pudica is the most commonly grown sensitive plant, but there are some 400 other species in the genus Mimosa, both herbs and shrubs, all sensitive to touch to at least some degree. There is even a hardy sensitive plant (zone 5) that can be grown as a perennial, M. nuttallii.
Note that these are true mimosas, not the trees and shrubs often called mimosas and which are actually very different, non-sensitive plants with similar pinnate leaves such as Albizia julibrissin (silk tree) and several acacias, including Acacia dealbata (blue wattle or mimosa).
There are also several species of “aquatic sensitive” (Neptunia spp.) with leaves much like those of the sensitive plant that react to touch in a similar fashion. As the common name suggests, they grow in water or at least under very boggy conditions.
Less well known is the little tree plant (Biophytum sensitivum), a small herbaceous houseplant in the Oxalidaceae that looks like a tiny palm tree and is sometimes used as a tree substitute in terrariums and fairy gardens. It is modestly touch sensitive … but its leaves move all on their own much of the time, albeit quite slowly.
Finally, the partridge or sensitive pea (Chamaecrista fasciculata), a fairly common annual species of legume native to the eastern United States, also has pinnate leaves that close at night … and are slightly sensitive to the touch during the day.
Touchy Feely Carnivores
The other group that includes plants sensitive to touch are carnivorous plants or, more correctly, insectivorous plants.
The best known of these is the Venus flytrap (Dionaea muscipula), often offered as a houseplant, although rarely very long-lived in the average home environment. I already wrote a bit about this plant in 5 Plants with Weird Foliage. It’s bear trap-shaped leaves are dotted with tiny hairs. If an insect touches one hair, nothing will happen. This is believed to be a protection to keep leaves from closing for inopportune reasons, such as when a raindrop or a fallen leaf touches it. However, if the hair is touched a second time within 20 seconds, or if a second hair is touched within the same time limit, the cause is probably a wandering arthropod and the trap closes rapidly, in one tenth of a second. After that, the insect is slowly digested, then the trap opens again. It takes 5 to 14 hours for the trap to reopen after a false alert, while actually digesting an insect can take 10 days or more.
Less well-known than the Venus flytrap, bladderworts (Utricularia spp.) are even faster. Their bladder-shaped trap is small modified leaf, so designed that when it is “set,” a vacuum forms inside the bladder. If a water flea or other small invertebrate touches the sensitive hair on the outside, the trap opens, instantly sucks in the creature, then closes. The whole process only takes ten to fifteen thousandths of a second.
Gardeners won’t likely find this trap as fascinating as that of the Venus flytrap, as all of this action takes place more or less out of sight underwater or even underground in soggy soil, as bladderworts are bog or aquatic plants.
Other insectivorous plants show some leaf movement. Some sundews (Drosera spp.) have leaves that will slowly wrap around their prey once it is glued to the sticky glands that cover them, but this happens so slowly you’d need a time-lapse camera to notice. Butterworts (Pinguicula spp.) leaves also roll up slightly when they trap a prey item, but their movement is even less impressive than that of sundews.
Leaves that move: one of Mother Nature’s little surprises!