Tiny Plant Bursts Open at Explosive Speeds

The bunchberry dogwood using a catapult mechanism to eject its pollen.

hide captionA video still shows the bunchberry dogwood using a catapult mechanism to eject its pollen. The stamens reach a velocity of about 9.9 feet per second.

Courtesy D. Whitaker, M. Laskowski, A. Acosta, J. Edwards

VIDEO: Explosive Flower

This video, which offers a close-up view of the bunchberry dogwood's explosive opening, was shot at 10,000 frames per second. It has been slowed down by a factor of 667 to 15 frames per second. The flower seen here is approximately 2 millimeters across.

The bunchberry dogwood, a tiny shrub that grows in dense carpets in the fir and spruce forests of North America, is the fastest-moving plant ever discovered, researchers report in this week's issue of the journal Nature.

The plant bursts open in less than a millisecond, flinging its pollen grains with the force of a huge explosive — at speeds about 800 times the force astronauts experience during take-off.

The plant's firing mechanism is similar in design to a medieval trebuchet catapult. As the petals of its tiny alabaster-white flower open, they trigger its stamens to shoot up and hurl pollen upwards and outwards. The whole process happens faster than the snap of a venus flytrap.

The researchers, from Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., speculate that the bunchberry, which only grows to a height of about 8 inches, may need the super-powered propulsion to maximize its chances of catching a breeze to carry its pollen to other plants far and wide.

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