Plants can more than move–they can even push, according to new study

Tall elephant’s foot (Elephantopus elatus). Photo by Judy Gallagher from Wikimedia Commons.

Plants are often seen as inanimate objects. It would take a timelapse video, congesting hours of footage, to see how they actually move throughout the day. One study, however, reveals that plants are more than just mobile, they can even push away other plants to vie for more space.

A study by researchers from the University of Florida provides the first documented case of shoving among plants. The researchers studied this behavior on a species of aster called the tall elephant’s foot (Elephantopus elatus).

The researchers took the plants from a savanna in Gainesville, Florida, and transplanted them into a lab. They collaborated with engineering professors to design and construct a cantilever system which the researchers suspected the plant would push against. After leaving the device beside the plant for 24 hours, they noticed that the lever was slightly displaced. 

The researchers conducted several trials and measured that the plant exerted an average pushing force of around 0.02 Newtons — the same amount of force needed to lift a small coin. The researchers found the results remarkable, seeing how lightweight the plant was.

The researchers next grew the plant next to rye seedlings. They noticed as the plant grew outward, its outer edge bends downward, thus pushing down nearby stalks.

The findings of the study illuminate how various plant species can coexist in the wild despite how certain species tend to grow faster, according to savannah ecologist Ellen Damschen from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Damschen said that the pushing behavior may help plants to secure their own foothold, thus preventing other faster-growing plants from out-competing them for soil and sunlight.


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