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Tiny Plant Bursts Open at Explosive Speeds

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Tiny Plant Bursts Open at Explosive Speeds

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Tiny Plant Bursts Open at Explosive Speeds

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

Flowers are not noted for their speed. Your typical tulip or rose blossoms at a snail's pace, taking days to unfold. Well, now researchers have discovered a flower that blooms with explosive quickness, in less than a millisecond. NPR's David Malakoff reports.


The bunchberry dogwood is a little plant the size of a teacup that has tiny flowers of alabaster white and grows all over the Northern Hemisphere. It carpets the ground in places like Isle Royale National Park in Michigan. Sarah Klionsky was doing field research there a few summers ago when she was a student at Williams College. That's when she noticed something unusual.

Ms. SARAH KLIONSKY: There was a lot of bunchberry all around the camp, and when I was kind of poking around, I noticed that each little flower, when you touched it, would kind of burst open. So, like, you could kind of see, like, a little puff when it opened.

MALAKOFF: No researcher had recorded that before, and soon Klionsky's biology professor, Joan Edwards, was trying to figure out what the flower was doing.

Professor JOAN EDWARDS (Williams College): The problem is that it happens too fast for your eye to capture. You can't really see it. It's over in the blink of an eye.

MALAKOFF: So Edwards used a video camera that records at 10,000 frames per second.

Prof. EDWARDS: And we noticed this just absolutely beautifully designed flower that had four petals that came together at the tips almost perfectly and had one trigger coming off of one of the petals. And if just pushed the trigger very gently to one side, the whole flower just exploded.

MALAKOFF: The brief blossoming takes just 3/10ths of a millisecond. And in the current issue of the journal Nature, Edwards says that's a flower speed record. But that's not all. The video showed that the bunchberry flower is armed with pollen catapults, tiny levers that fling pollen grains with amazing force, about 2,500 times the force of gravity. A space shuttle astronaut feels just three or four G's during liftoff. Edwards says such flower power helps the bunchberry drive its pollen grains deep into the body hairs of visiting bees, which carry it to other flowers.

Prof. EDWARDS: Those insects don't have a chance. They get hit by pollen without even knowing it.

MALAKOFF: Edwards doubts that any other flower can beat her bunchberry's speed record.

Prof. EDWARDS: It's going to be awfully hard to be faster than half a millisecond, don't you think?

MALAKOFF: Still, she says that she walked right by blooming bunchberries for more than 30 years without noticing their explosive tendencies. So who knows? David Malakoff, NPR News.

SIEGEL: And if you're quick, you can see video of the bunchberry dogwoods opening at our Web site, And don't worry. We've slowed it down just a little.

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