Watching a life form return from the brink of death is an intrinsically awe-inspiring event. Even though we love watching or reading about characters who’ve managed to slip through the Grim Reaper’s bony grip (looking at you, everyone from Gandalf to Jon Snow to Fry), it’s rare to behold such a sight in real life. It’s probably why it’s so delightful to observe “resurrection plants” like the one below transform from a lifeless, brittle husk back into a little bloomin’ beauty before our very eyes.
This is a resurrection plant. It’s a desert plant that can survive almost complete desiccation. During the dry weather it curls into a tight ball, uncurling when exposed to moisture pic.twitter.com/QSLoHvKBJ4
— guns n roses girl (@gunsnrosesgirl3) December 1, 2019
If you haven’t heard of them, “resurrection plants” are those that are “desiccation-tolerant,” meaning they’re able to survive extreme dehydration for extended periods of time, often on the order of months or even years. And while there are numerous species of desiccation-tolerant plants, one that puts on an especially fantastic show as it “comes back to life” is Selaginella lepidophylla, colloquially known as the flower of stone, rose of Jericho, dinosaur plant, or siempre viva.
In the clip above, posted by Twitter user guns n roses girl, we see Selaginella lepidophylla transform from what looks like a little brain-like bundle of dried kindling into a moist, green firework replete with scaly leaves ready to photosynthesize and proclaim to the world—I’m back baby! The whole transformation takes place over only a few hours too, which is a pretty miraculous timeframe by itself; the time-lapsed clip does help to reveal just how significant the plant’s physiological changes are though, so props to whoever condensed the transformation down to 16 seconds.
A dehydrated and hydrated rose of Jericho side by side. Rose of Jericho
In terms of how Selaginella lepidophylla or its desiccation-tolerant brethren manage to pull off their feat of earthly rebirth, the science is still a bit mysterious. What is known, however, is that these resurrection plants are protecting themselves against long periods of intense dehydration—they lose up to 95% of their water content in their seemingly lifeless state—by slowing down their metabolisms to the point of almost being at a standstill, or even paralyzed completely. I.e. while these plants are dehydrated, all of their life processes, such as respiration, reproduction, and growth, are more or less totally paralyzed.
Resurrection plants are able to pull off this feat of near lifelessness thanks to the fact that they’re genetically coded to accumulate specific sugars and amino acids that stabilize their proteins and cellular membranes during extended periods of dehydration—normally, in the absence of water, a plant’s tissues and cells are damaged or destroyed because its unable to perform photosynthesis, and also loses the internal pressures required to maintain its cell, leaf, and stem structures.
But with the accumulation of stabilizing sugars and amino acids, resurrection plants have cell walls that are, in effect, far more flexible than those belonging to the cells of other plants. In other words, while most plants’ cells crack and break apart in the absence of water, those belonging to desiccation-tolerant plants like Selaginella lepidophylla are able to simply fold up and hang tight (literally) until they can be “inflated” once again when an influx of water returns.
Jill Farrant’s TED Talk discussing resurrection plants.
Not only do desiccation-tolerant plants put on a stunning show when they transform from seemingly dead to vibrantly alive, but they may also help to create heartier food crops that will be able to better withstand the heat damage caused by climate change. In her 2016 TED Talk (above), molecular biologist Jill Farrant discusses the possibility of genetically altering food crops such as corn so that they behave more like desiccation-tolerant plants during long periods of dehydration. Which isn’t all that far fetched considering the fact that most plant seeds themselves are desiccation-tolerant. As Farrant points out, it will only be a matter of turning on the already present genes for desiccation tolerance in food crops—which would still be a miracle of science on par with bringing nearly dead organisms back to life.
What do you think of these resurrection plants? Is this one of the best plant shows you’ve ever seen Mama Nature put on, or do you prefer flowering miracles that are a bit slimier? Hydrate your opinions in the comments!
Feature image: Nicole-Koehler