The other day I made a plant friend.
My plant friend is some kind of squash. Pumpkin, maybe. It grows along the edge of a community garden that I walk by on my way to work. Like many of those squash-like plants, it uses tendrils to anchor itself, clinging in tight spirals to the fence wires. With no respect for boundaries it spilled its way well outside the garden and onto the sidewalk.
When I walked by it on Thursday morning, the plant was exploring for new territory. One new tendril stuck out several inches, straight as a ruler, with just the tiniest curl at the very tip.
Plants are living things with behavior, just like us. As I read the other day in a delightful essay by Lewis Thomas: “the resemblance of the enzymes of grasses to those of whales is a family resemblance.” Plants don’t halloooo across the deeps and splash their tails about like whales do, but they’re still alive. They grow, they reproduce. They pick their moments. They even make their own food from air and nutrients. Then they let us eat them, with little or no fight.
Moving is one of the things they can do. They bend towards sun and away from gravity. And, if they’re trying to support a vine, they can wrap around other objects—pretty quickly. This has one heck of a name: thigmotropism. A tendril responds to a touch by changing the shape of its cells. Cells on the side toward the potential support get shorter; those on the other side get longer. The tendril curls around and around a plant, trellis, or fence. Grapes do it. So do peas, and some tropical plants.
I stuck my finger next to the tendril, curious if it would move fast enough for me to notice a difference before my patience ran out. While I waited, I amused myself by trying to convince my camera to focus on the skinny green strip, rather than the leaves and pavement below it. Along the same fence, other tendrils clung, spiraling like telephone cords or wrapped tighter than a ball-point pen spring. And, in a few minutes, it happened: the tendril curled from the end until it was hooked like a candy cane around my finger, in the tiniest of plant hugs.
I left my friend and continued to work. I worried a little, though. Now that the tendril had bent around me, had I ruined its chances? Was it never going to curl again?
The next day I stopped at the same corner of the fence. The tendril had straightened out to look for a new winding partner. But it was seeking support over a quiet sidewalk, where no fence or stake or tomato plant was going to appear.
One of the best things about my commute, a half-hour wander through the D.C. suburbs, is the stories. Narratives unspool, just because I look at the same living things over and over again. Milkweed grew and went to seed. Last fall a tree got knocked over by a car; today it is scarred, but upright and leafy. I even got fascinated with a broken-legged red plastic dinosaur that I tracked for months as it surfed in the gravel of a poorly-maintained road, then washed away in the spring rain.
When I woke up Monday morning, the temperature was right at 32°F. When I set out, some of the grass still had ice on it. I wondered if the frost had killed the tendril.
Instead, as I approached, I realized the plant had met a different fate. The part of the vine that sprawled over the sidewalk was gone, cut off at the fence. A disgruntled pedestrian? A considerate gardener? Who knows.
I was disappointed, but not actually sad. If you cut off a chunk of a mammal, you usually cause a serious problem. Most of the time, a plant will continue to thrive. This one should be fine, if it’s ok with a bit of frost.
And we weren’t really friends, the plant and I. As many enzymes as we share, the plant is a gourd and I am an ape. But it did respond to my touch that morning, and that was nice.
Photo: Helen Fields, laboriously