You probably think I’m going to talk about your stress. Nope. I’m going to talk about plant stress. But you can extrapolate if you want: humans need a bit of stress, too, or we wouldn’t stand upright.
What seems to be important, in humans and in plants, is the right kind of stress. I’ve talked about bad kinds of stress, like what happens to plants that get watered, then suffer from drought.
How do we create good plant stress?
Squeeze your grapes. Wine grapes, that is. But you’ve got to do it right. Mark and Rie Ishii Matthews, at the University of California, did a study on wine grapes that were stinted on water, making smaller, dryer grapes. These grapes made wine which was more aromatic and flavorful, and had a better appearance. The wine was worth more, too, which made the growers happy.
Whack off your vines. Most vines put on a much better display if they’re severely pinched out or pruned early in life. Grapes would be only one example; most perennial flowering vines also benefit from being whacked. Instead of putting their energy into one long trailer, suddenly they have several branches, all potential rivers of flowers and fruit. Don’t forget that many tomatoes are vines, too. And some non-vine plants – such as chrysanthemums – also do well under this treatment.
Beat and shoot your trees. In the southeast U.S., farmers flail their pecan trees to make a better yield. This echos an old English custom, wassailing. On about the 17th of January (Twelfth Night on the old calendar, one of those post-winter-solstice holidays) farmers gather in the apple orchard with shotguns and other noisemakers. They pour libations of cider on the roots, and put cider-soaked pieces of toast in the branches. Sometimes a child is put in the branches of the chosen tree and fed some of the cider toast. Then guns are discharged through the branches, tin cans and trays are beaten, and a song is sung to the apple tree, encouraging it to bear.
There are records of similar rituals for other fruit-bearing trees, but for most of history, apple trees were the main source of alcohol, making them vitally important, and their rituals seem to have been more recorded. Some of the wassailing traditions include beating the trees, just like the southeastern pecan farmers.
Robert Stone’s 1989 book, The Secret Life of Your Cells, got me thinking about this. Stone says that, in the grapes experiment, the researchers intended good when they turned off the water, and the plants sensed that. Having known scientific researchers, I think they were just as likely to be thinking about what they were having for lunch or if they could fit a trip to the gas station in before they got home, but OK. Let’s ride with this theory.
Certainly the farmers who beat their apple trees are looking to encourage, and not harm. Yet how many stories have we heard of plants who were threatened with death if they didn’t shape up – and they shaped up? How many of us have experienced plants thriving where they have no business to? A miniature citrus that thrives in a shady spot, but dies when moved to a sunny one; Ruth Stout’s gardenia, which flourished where it wasn’t supposed to.
Are these plants stressed, and liking it? Or are they just perverse? Is it the same thing?