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The best offense

Did you ever think that plants get afraid? Probably not, but they do, and they have ways to protect themselves, just like mammals and insects. Here are some examples of plant defense mechanisms:

  • Like cats have claws that scratch or puncture to keep away predators, roses have thorns.
  • The hog-nosed snake flips over and lies still when picked up by people. Even spiders will fold in their legs and crouch as if dead when they feel threatened. The sensitive briar (Mimosa roemeriana) reacts to being touched by folding up its leaves and looking small and shriveled. By doing so, the plant may reduce its chances of becoming a meal.
  • Much like skunk spray that can be smelled for miles, aromatic plants such as sages use their strong scent to repel insects. Most strong-smelling herbs aren’t overwhelmed with insects and for this reason are sometimes planted nearby other plants to protect them.
  • Toads have a poison gland that releases a chemical when they are handled. This chemical has a bitter taste that causes predators to drop them. Mustard greens also taste bitter, especially when they are uncooked.
  • The walking stick uses its shape to fool possible predators into thinking it’s a stick or twig. Some passion flowers (Passiflora spp.) use small bumps to fool butterflies into thinking the leaves already have eggs laid on them, sending butterflies to other plants to deposit their voracious offspring.

Next time you are in the backyard or out in nature see how many of these different plant defenses you can find. Maybe you can even discover one not included here.

— Stephen Brueggerhoff, former Public Programs Manager at the Center

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