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June 2007 -- The next time you venture into your garden armed with plants, consider
who you place next to whom. It turns out that the docile garden plant
isn't as passive as widely assumed, at least not with strangers.
Researchers at McMaster University have found that plants get fiercely
competitive when forced to share their pot with strangers of the same
species, but they're accommodating when potted with their siblings.
"The ability to recognize and favour kin is common in animals, but
this is the first time it has been shown in plants" said Susan Dudley,
associate professor of biology at McMaster University in Hamilton,
Canada. "When plants share their pots, they get competitive and start
growing more roots, which allows them to grab water and mineral
nutrients before their neighbours get them. It appears, though, that
they only do this when sharing a pot with unrelated plants; when they
share a pot with family they don't increase their root growth. Because
differences between groups of strangers and groups of siblings only
occurred when they shared a pot, the root interactions may provide a
cue for kin recognition."
Though they lack cognition and memory, the study shows plants are
capable of complex social behaviours such as altruism towards
relatives, says Dudley. Like humans, the most interesting behaviours
occur beneath the surface.
Dudley and her student, Amanda File, observed the behavior in sea
rocket (Cakile edentula), a member of the mustard family native to
beaches throughout North America, including the Great Lakes.
So should gardeners arrange their plants like they would plan the seating at a dinner party?
"Gardeners have known for a long time that some pairs of species get
along better than others, and scientists are starting to catch up with
why that happens," says Dudley. "What I've found is that plants from
the same mother may be more compatible with each other than with plants
of the same species that had different mothers. The more we know about
plants, the more complex their interactions seem to be, so it may be as
hard to predict the outcome as when you mix different people at a
The study appears today in the Royal Society journal Biology Letters.
The study was made possible by a grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.
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