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Botanicus confusicus: how 2020 has stressed out Canberra’s plant-life

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At a time where absolutely everyone seems to be losing their heads over coronavirus and the city is still trying to pull itself together after the combined trauma of fire, smoke and hail, it appears humans aren’t the only ones acting strangely.

Just look outside.

Have you noticed the plants are completely confused?

It appears that many flowering species are back in bloom—not because it is Spring, as it clearly is not—but because they are feeling the weight of apocalyptic conditions.

And for many of them, they assume the end is nigh.

Magnolias in Ainslie.

It is apparently not an unusual response for a plant to try one last act of reproductive flowering after a stressful or unseasonal event, according to the Australian National Botanic Garden’s Curator of the Living Collection, David Taylor.

The garden’s staff have recently witnessed many instances of flowering out-of-season both at work and across the city.

“Absolutely there is something going on and plants are responding to the significant weather and smoke events with out-of-season flowering,” David said.

New (but out-of-season) life at the Australian National Botanic Gardens.

The extended drought, followed by several days of extreme temperatures, felt like the end of days for some of the city’s botanical life.

Their response was to summon their energy and go into bloom in a last-ditch attempt to keep the species going.

In other words, if you’re a Manchurian Pear and you think your entire tribe is on the way out, why not try and create some baby Manchurian Pears before you go.

Luckily, of course, these plants are not, for the large part, dying. And indeed, with record rainfall, they have had a great drink in recent weeks.

David noted that the extended blanket of smoke which shrouded the city may also have induced many native species to prepare for germination. In fact, Botanic Garden’s staff sometimes use smoke or smoked water to prepared plants for germination in the greenhouse.

“It has been proven in nursery conditions that smoke exposure often initiates germination,” David said. “So we can assume it possibly had some local impact. Many species of Australia’s flora are adapted to responding to fire in this way.”

Blossoms in Palmerston, captured by Andrea Wild of the CSIRO.

Finally, even the hail has potentially played a role in unusual plant behaviour.

David noted that the garden’s Rainforest Gully had been severely damaged in the hailstorm—with many species defoliated. Their usual cool, dark and moist conditions had changed to ones in which new sunlight was able to penetrate—and several were already flowering and putting on lush new growth as a result.

“After such events, watching and learning from the response our plants are showing, gives us food for thought as we adapt our management and edit our use and selection of plants,” he said.

The good news is that, with rain set to continue, the city’s plant life is recovering well. And while we are out walking in an attempt to self-isolate during the coronavirus, we might find some pretty flowers to stop and admire in among the autumnal change.

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