The Rose of Jericho

To survive in a desert, plants must eek out an existence in specific microclimates that provide conditions that are only slightly better than the surrounding landscape. Such is the case for the Rose of Jericho (Anastatica hierochuntica). This tenacious little mustard is found throughout arid regions of the Middle East and the Saharan Desert and it has been made famous the world over for its "resurrection" abilities. It is also the subject of much speculation so today we are going to separate fact from fiction and reveal what years of research has taught about this desert survivor. 

Natural selection has shaped this species into an organism fully ready to take advantage of those fleeting moments when favorable growing conditions present themselves. A. hierochuntica makes its living in dry channels called runnels or wadis, which concentrate water during periods of rain. It is a desert annual meaning the growth period of any individual is relatively short. Once all the water in the sandy soil has evaporated, this plant shrivels up and dies. This is not the end of its story though. With a little luck, the plants were pollinated and multiple spoon-shaped fruits have formed on its stems.

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As the dead husk of the plant starts to dry out, its branches curl up into a ball-like mass with most of the fruits tucked away in the interior. There the plant will sit, often for many years, until rain returns. When rain does finally arrive, things happen fast. After all, who knows how long it will be before it rains again. Thanks to a quirk of physiology, the dried tissues of A. hierochuntica are extremely elastic and can return to their normal shape and position once hydrated. As the soil soaks up water, the dried up stems and roots just under the surface also begin taking up water and the stems unfurl.

To call this resurrection is being a bit too generous. The plant is not returning to life. Instead, its dead tissues simply expand as they imbibe liquid. Water usually does not come to the desert without rain and rain is exactly what A. hierochuntica needs to complete its life cycle. Unfurling of its stems exposes its spoon-shaped fruits to the elements. Their convex shape is actually an adaptation for seed dispersal by rain, a mechanism termed ombrohydrochory. When a raindrop hits the fruit, it catapults the seed outward from the dead parent.

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If rains are light, seeds do not get very far. They tend to cluster around the immediate area of their parent. If rains are heavy, however, seeds can travel quite a distance. This is why one will only ever find this species growing in channels. During the rare occasions when those channels fill with water, seeds quickly float away on the current. In fact, experts believe that the buoyancy of A. hierochuntica seed is an adaptation that evolved in response to flooding events. It is quite ironic that water dispersal is such an important factor for a plant growing in some of the driest habitats on Earth.

To aid in germination, the seeds themselves are coated in a material that becomes mucilaginous upon wetting. When the seeds eventually come into contact with the soil, the mucilage sticks to the ground and causes the seeds to adhere to the surface upon drying. This way, they are able to effectively germinate instead of blowing around in the wind.

Again, things happen fast for A. hierochuntica. Most of its seeds will germinate within 12 hours of rainfall. Though they are relatively drought tolerant, the resulting seedlings nonetheless cannot survive without water. As such, their quick germination allows them to make the most out of fleeting wet conditions.

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Occasionally, the balled up husks of these plants will become dislodged from the sand and begin to blow around the landscape like little tumbleweeds. This has led some to suggest that A. hierochuntica utilizes this as a form a seed dispersal, scattering seeds about the landscape as it bounces around in the wind. Though this seems like an appealing hypothesis, experts believe that this is not the best means of disseminating propagules. Seeds dispersed in this way are much less likely to end up in favorable spots for germination. Though it certainly occurs, it is likely that this is just something that happens from time to time rather than something the plant has evolved to do.

In total, the Rose of Jericho is one tough cookie. Thanks to quick germination and growth, it is able to take advantage of those rare times when its desert environment become hospitable.

Photo Credits: [1] [2] [3] [4]

Further Reading: [1] [2] [3] [4]

The Incredible Feat of a Resurrection Plant

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It is understandable why one would look at the crispy brown bundle of a Selaginella lepidophylla and think that it was dead. No wonder then why this hardy spikemoss has become such a novelty item for those looking for a unique gift. Indeed, even the common name of "resurrection plant" suggests that this species miraculously returns from the dead with the simple addition of water. A dormant resurrection plant is far from dead, however. It is in a state of dormancy that we are still struggling to understand.

Selaginella lepidophylla is native to the Chihuahuan desert, spanning the border between the US and Mexico. This is a harsh habitat for most plants, let alone a Lycophyte. However, this lineage has not survived hundreds of millions of years by being overly sensitive to environmental change and S. lepidophylla is a wonderful reminder of that.

As you can probably imagine, tolerating near-complete desiccation can be pretty beneficial when your habitat receives an average of only 235 mm (9.3 in) of rain each year. A plant can either store water for those lean times or go dormant until the rains return. The latter is exactly what S. lepidophylla does. As its water supply dwindles, the whole body of the plant curls up into a tight ball and waits. No roots anchor it to the ground. It is at the mercy of the winds as it blows around like a tiny tumbleweed until it winds up wedged into a crack or crevice.

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When the rains return, S. lepidophylla needs to be ready. Wet this crispy bundle and watch as over the course of about a day, the dormant ball unfurls to reveal the stunning body of a photosynthetic spikemoss ready to take advantage of moist conditions. Such conditions are short lived, of course, so after a few days drying out, the plant shrivels up and returns to its dormant, ball-like state. How does the plant manage to do this? Why doesn't it simply die? The answer to these questions has been the subject of quite a bit of debate and investigation. 

What we do know is that part of its success has to do with curling up into a ball. Without water in its tissues, its sensitive photosynthetic machinery would easily become damaged by punishing UV rays. By curling up, the plant essentially shelters these tissues from the sun. Indeed, plants that were kept from curling up experienced irreversible damage to their photo systems and were not as healthy as plants that did curl up. To this, the plant owes its success to rather flexible cell walls. Unlike other plants that snap when folded, the cells of S. lepidophylla are able to fold and unfold without any major structural damage.

As far as metabolism and chemistry is concerned, however, we are still trying to figure out how S. lepidophylla survives such drastic shifts. For a while it was thought that, similar to other organisms that undergo such dramatic desiccation, the plant relies on a special sugar called trehalose. Trehalose is known to bind to important proteins and membranes in other desiccation-tolerant organisms, thus protecting them from damage and allowing them to quickly return to their normal function as soon as water returns.

An analysis of non-desiccating Selaginella species, however, showed that S. lepidophylla doesn't produce a lot of trehalose. Though it is certainly present in its tissues, more wet-loving species of Selaginella contain much higher amounts of this sugar. Instead, it has been found that other sugars may actually be playing a bigger role in protecting the inner workings of this plant. Sorbitol and xylitol are found in much higher concentrations within the tissues of S. lepidophylla, suggesting that they may be playing a bigger role than we ever realized. More work is needed to say for sure.

Finally, it would appear that S. lepidophylla is able to maintain enzyme activities within its cells at much higher levels during desiccation periods than was initially thought possible. When dried, some enzymes were found to be working at upwards of 75% efficiency of those found in hydrated tissues. This is really important for a plant that needs to respond quickly to take advantage of fleeting conditions. Along with quick production of new enzymes, this "idling" of enzymatic activity during dormancy is thought to not only protect the plant from too much respiration, but also allows it to hit the ground running as soon as favorable conditions return. 

Despite our lack of understanding of the process, it is amazing to watch this resurrection plant in action. To see something go from a death-like state to a living, photosynthetic organism over the course of a day is truly a marvel worth enjoying.

Photo Credits: [1] [2]

Further Reading: [1]