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It’s one of the things we take for granted, in the gardening world, unless we’re in the tropics. Maybe even in the tropics there is dormancy that reveals itself to a knowing eye.

But when you think about it, dormancy is miraculous. Something dies, and we expect it to rise again. Have you ever considered  what it is involved in taking that for granted? Maybe that’s why gardeners are more trusting in nature than the general population.

In an annual, dormancy has an aspect of transfiguraiton: the plant starts from a small  hard grain,

amazingly sprouts a soft green substance many times its original size,

and then, against all reason, continues to get bigger and create yet another variation: a flower.

And if that flower gets pollinated – and it has all sorts of tricks to make sure that happens – its soft, flimsy zygotes undergo a change, a change that brings them back to that hard little grain that started it all.

Although it is kind of a chicken and egg question, whether the seed is the start of things, or whether, in some dimension of time, a plant just had a mad whim to flower and fruit, instead of going on the same old way, like algae, dividing cells and dividing cells.

Bruce Lipton, the renegade cell biologist from Stanford, says that when cell conglomerations get large, they can choose to make communities, where some cells have special functions. Our own bodies are cooperative communities of trillions of cells.

Plants are also cooperative communities. Having had the privilege of seeing mitosis under a microscope – my mind got expanded to an airy thinness in that tiny field.  Mitosis is when cells divide, and also where they arrange themselves to take on certain work. The cells in plants, like our own cells, agreed to split up the tasks. (“OK: I’ll make a leaf bud. And I’ll mostly do photosynthesis, but I’ll do a couple of other things on the side. I like variety.”)

One thing cells do, Bruce Lipton says (and this is why he’s a renegade, though no one has been able to scientifically refute him) – one thing cells do is they respond to the environment. In fact, our own cells respond to environment, not to our DNA as the textbooks have it. DNA is just a kind of architect’s plan; we can change the plans by changing our environment: by chemistry, sound, feeling, temperature, and probably many other signals that we’re not even aware of.

Plant-cell communities also responded to their environment. At some point, they must have decided to be flexible, to roll with it, to go with the seasons. They could have decided, on the basis of winter, “Well, better keep hard and small and protected, the world’s obviously a hostile place for growth.”

And, in a sense, they did. For a time, they did decide that. But they also decided to respond to the expanding warmth of spring, when it came along.  And to the long days of summer. They kept their options flexible. Annuals allowed hard impermeability to last only for the season where it serves a purpose. They turned what might have been a killing hardship into an extravagant magical display: now you see it, now you don’t.

And perennials, those plants that get ever dearer to gardener’s hearts as we go along in life. perennials decided to shed their fluffed-out leaves and honey-scented blossoms (or even their tiny leaves and scentless unnoticeable flowers). They cast off all softness and extravagance – so they can get bigger next year, and create even more lush fertility, more and more every year.

{ 4 comments… add one }

  • Helen January 6, 2011, 10:38 am

    What an interesting and thoughtful post. I think we take so much for granted and its nice to really think about whats happening

  • Daffodil Planter January 6, 2011, 4:49 pm

    A lovely essay, and the end photo is inspiring. Thank you.

  • lostlandscape (James) January 9, 2011, 10:08 am

    Being a mammal that doesn’t hibernate I’ve always found dormancy an amazing state of being. And for process of a seed breaking dormancy and assembling all those nearby molecules into something organized and beautiful is a process that will forever keep me in awe! Thanks for the thoughts and great photos.

  • Cyd January 14, 2011, 9:25 am

    Such a beautiful “snow diamond” picture. Wonderful thought provoking post.

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