Seeing plants move

You've probably seen cool time-lapse videos of plants growing. Probably also videos of sunflowers moving to track the sun. But do you have a sense of how fast they actually grow and move? It's surprisingly close to the limits of human perception.

I have a couple pots of wild yam, Dioscorea villosa. (Not an edible kind of yam.) It's a twining vine (botanically, a "bine") which grows in eastern North America. It overwinters as a tuber, and in the spring it shoots up, growing many inches per day. As it grows, it twirls its tip around and around, searching for things to climb on.

I took a time lapse video of my plants the other day. The video wasn't actually that interesting, since it was largely out of focus, but I'd like to show you 5 frames as a gif (Pothos for scale):

Animation of 5 photos of a wild yam tendril, showing the tip moving a few millimeters each frame

(This was put together with the following ImageMagick command: convert -layers OptimizePlus -delay 1x1 -quality 99 -geometry 640x480 IMG_334{3..7}.JPG -loop 0 yam-1.gif from images 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.)

Those frames are only 15 seconds apart, and the vine tip is moving several millimeters. After realizing this, I sat myself down in a stable chair, quieted myself so that my breathing was very even and watched... and to my surprise and delight I could see it move! Just barely, and more clearly from some positions, and not all the time, but by god it was moving. This isn't a Venus's Fly Trap, or a Sensitive Plant, known for its unusually fast movement. It's just an ordinary vine.

It's easy to think of plants as static objects, scenery. But they're living creatures, searching for juuust the right angle to catch the sunlight, grabbing onto sticks for better support, jockeying for the high vantage point in the crowd. They have electrochemical nervous systems; not like ours, a thousand times slower, but they react to sun and shadow, herbivores, the chemical messages of their neighbors. They react with movement and growth, more chemical speech. They're moving at another timescale. To a superhuman speedster, a group of joggers might as well be a garden of statues. To us, plants appear frozen in time. But they're moving, twisting, shoving, growing as we buzz around them at ridiculous speeds. And if you sit still, with the right plant... you just might be able to slow down enough to catch one at it.

Responses: 1 so far Feed icon

  1. Adam Snider says:

    That is a really remarkable set of images. I never thought of plants as growing that quickly, and certainly not as "moving," even though I know that they do, indeed, move (as with your sunflower example). Thanks for the subtle shift in perception.