Plant movements

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Plant movements

The wide range of movements that allow plants to reorient themselves in relation to changed surroundings, to facilitate spore or seed dispersal, or, in the case of small free-floating aquatic plants, to migrate to regions optimal for their activities. There are two types of plant movement: abiogenic movements, which arise purely from the physical properties of the cells and therefore take place in nonliving tissues or organs; and biogenic movements, which occur in living cells or organs and require an energy input from metabolism.

Abiogenic movements

Drying or moistening of certain structures causes differential contractions or expansions on the two sides of cells and hence causes movements of curvature. Such movements are called hygroscopic and are usually associated with seed and spore liberation and dispersal. Examples of such movement occur in the “parachute” hairs of the fruit of dandelion (Taraxacum officinale), which are closed when damp but open when the air is dry to induce release from the heads and give buoyancy for wind dispersal.

Another type of abiogenic movement is due to changes in volume of dead water-containing cells. In the absence of a gas phase, water will adhere to lignocellulose cell walls. As water is lost by evaporation from the surface of these cells, considerable tensions can build up inside, causing them to decrease in volume while remaining full of water. The effect is most commonly seen in some grasses of dry habitats, such as sand dunes, where longitudinal rows of cells on one side of the leaf act as spring hinges, contracting in a dry atmosphere and causing the leaf to roll up into a tight cylinder, thus minimizing water loss by transpiration.

Biogenic movements

There are two types of biogenic movement. One of these is locomotion of the whole organism and is thus confined to small, simply organized units in an aqueous environment. The other involves the change in shape and orientation of whole organs of complex plants, usually in response to specific stimuli.


In most live plant cells the cytoplasm can move by a streaming process known as cyclosis. Energy for cyclosis is derived from the respiratory metabolism of the cell. The mechanism probably involves contractile proteins very similar to the actomyosin of animal muscles.

Cell locomotion is a characteristic of many simple plants and of the gametes of more highly organized ones. Motility in such cells is produced by cilia anchored in the peripheral layers of the cell and projecting into the surrounding medium. See Cilia and flagella

Cell locomotion is usually not random but is directed by some environmental gradient. Thus locomotion may be in response to specific chemicals, in which case it is called chemotaxis. Light gradients induce phototaxis; temperature gradients induce thermotaxis; and gravity induces geotaxis. One or more of these environmental factors may operate to control movement to optimal living conditions.

Movement of organs

In higher plants, organs may change shape and position in relation to the plant body. When bending or twisting of the organ is evoked spontaneously by some internal stimulus, it is termed autonomous movement. The most common movements, however, are those initiated by external stimuli such as light and the force of gravity. Of these there are two kinds. In nastic movements (nasties), the stimulus usually has no directional qualities (such as a change in temperature), and the movement is therefore not related to the direction from which the stimulus comes. In tropisms, the stimulus has a direction (for instance, gravitational pull), and the plant movement direction is related to it.

The most common autonomous movement is circumnutation, a slow, circular, sometimes waving movement of the tips of shoots, roots, and tendrils as they grow; one complete cycle usually takes from 1 to 3 h. These movements are due to differential growth, but some may be caused by turgor changes in the cells of special hinge organs and are thus reversible.

1. Nastic movements. There are two kinds of nastic movements, due either to differential growth or to differential changes in the turgidity of cells. They can be triggered by a wide variety of external stimuli.

Photonastic (light/dark trigger) movements are characteristic of many flowers and inflorescences, which usually open in the light and close in the dark. Thermonasty (temperature-change trigger) is seen in the tulip and crocus flowers, which open in a warm room and close again when cooled. The most striking nastic movements are seen in the sensitive plant (Mimosa pudica). Its multipinnate leaves are very sensitive to touch or slight injury. Leaflets fold together, pinnae collapse downward, and the whole leaf sinks to hang limply.

Epinasty and hyponasty occur in leaves as upward and downward curvatures respectively. They arise either spontaneously or as the result of an external stimulus, such as exposure to the gas ethylene in the case of epinasty; they are not induced by gravity.

2. Tropisms. Of these the most universal and important are geotropism (or more properly gravitropism) and phototropism; others include thigmotropism and chemotropism.

In geotropism, the stimulus is gravity. The main axes of most plants grow in the direction of the plumb line with shoots upward (negative geotropism) and roots downward (positive geotropism).

In phototropism the stimulus is a light gradient, and unilateral light induces similar curvatures; those toward the source are positively phototropic; those away from the source are negatively phototropic. Main axes of shoots are usually positively phototropic, while the vast majority of roots are insensitive.

In thigmotropism (sometimes called haptotropism), the stimulus is touch; it occurs in climbing organs and is responsible for tendrils curling around a support. In many tendrils the response may spread from the contact area, causing the tight coiling of the basal part of the tendril into an elaborate and elastic spring.

Chemotropism is induced by a chemical substance. Examples are the incurling of the stalked digestive glands of the insectivorous plant Drosera and incurling of the whole leaf of Pinguicula in response to the nitrogenous compounds in the insect prey. A special case of chemotropism concerns response to moisture gradients; for example, under artificial conditions in air, the primary roots of some plants will curve toward and grow along a moist surface. This is called hydrotropism and may be of importance under natural soil conditions in directing roots toward water sources. See Plant hormones, Plant physiology

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