We humans aren’t the only ones who make mistakes. Occasionally, plants make a wrong turn (genetically speaking), and when they do, the results can be flat-out weird.
This past fall, a lady burst into my office holding a real doozy of a plant mistake — a 2-foot-long clipped off piece of an ash tree limb that looked downright extraterrestrial. Waving the freaky-looking stick back and forth like a Samurai sword and without so much as a “how-do-you-do” or “my name is,” she demanded to know what was happening to her tree and if it was contagious.
I was already in a funky mood before she burst into my office. It had been a long day of bizarre mishaps in the Linnaeus Teaching Garden, not the least of which was having a child throw up on my new Nike running shoes. I had lifted the child for the youngster to get a better look at plants flowering in a raised bed when the gastric explosion occurred. Glancing down at half-chewed peas and carrots on my new shoes almost produced a gastric response from me. No good deed, as they say, ever goes unpunished.
But I digress. Back to the limb-swinging lady.
When the lady excitedly asked what was happening to her tree and if the odd-looking growth was contagious, I couldn’t resist having a little fun at her expense. “Yes,” I replied with mock horror. “That’s plant ‘leprosy,’ and it’s highly contagious to other plants and to people!” The lady dropped the weird-looking stick as if it were a rattlesnake and backed away. The shocked look on her face suggested that she might up-chuck in my office. I felt awful, of course, for frightening the poor lady, and I quickly and profusely apologized. Mercifully, she had a good sense of humor and didn’t smack me upside the head with the ugly stick.
All ended well, however, when I explained that the weird-looking stick was a plant mutation, albeit a fairly rare one in the plant kingdom, called fasciation.
Plant fasciation occurs when something goes amiss during cell division in a growing point (apical meristem) of a plant. All plants rely on growing points of meristematic tissue to form new leaves, stems and flowers. When a copying blunder occurs in a growing point during cell division, the typical result is flattened, odd-looking or spiral growth known as fasciation. Although relatively rare, fasciation may occur in just about any plant, including flowers, shrubs, succulents and trees.
A number of things may trigger growing point mutations in plants. These include disease-causing agents, such as phytoplasmas, and/or certain types of insect infestations. Also, horticulturists have experimentally produced fasciation in seedling plants by bombarding them with X-rays. The good news is that fasciated growth in garden plants is nothing to be alarmed by. Frankly, I look at plant fasciation as a rare and quirky gift of nature, something to enjoy rather than fear. Simply prune the deformed growth out of an infected plant and keep it as a garden souvenir, or use it to frighten your friends.
It’s worth noting that Crested Cockscomb, a common bedding plant in many summer flower gardens, passes along fasciated growth characteristics by seed. Highly compressed and flattened cockscomb flowers resemble the head of an old rooster, hence the name Cockscomb.
Fasciation is truly fascinating!
Barry Fugatt is director of horticulture at the Tulsa Garden Center and Linnaeus Teaching Garden in Woodward Park. He may be reached at 918-746-5152 or email: email@example.com