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The Superpowers of Plants

It’s not just your favourite superheroes who have special powers to face down challenges. These plants pack quite a punch too! The mission? To survive and thrive!

Science and Technology
ST3-4LW-S A student examines how the environment affects the growth, survival and adaptation of living things
  • Literacy capability 

  • Critical and Creative Thinking capability 

  • Personal and Social capability 

Plant Superpowers Around the World - extra information on environments  

Bog 

  • carnivorous plant trapping mechanisms (snapping, sticky, pitfall, suction, light traps) to trap small insects as primary nutrient source  

  • small sized plants do not need many nutrients/ insects to support themselves  

  • plants have evolved to tolerate low nutrients and acidic water  

  • sphagnum moss growing on water surface can hold large amounts of water  

  • For detailed information on carnivorous plant adaptations visit the Carnivorous Plants online resource  

Bush 

Fire adaptations of plants (pyrophytism) follow three R’s which are to Resist, Recover, and Recruit:  

  • thick bark protects against low-intensity fires  

  • self-pruning of canopy branches  

  • thick and hard seed pods need fire to open them and release seeds  

  • new shoots sprout from deep under the bark (epicormic growth) or from underground at the base of the tree (lignotubers)  

  • seed germination is triggered by fire instead of maturity  

  • oily leaves stimulate fires to burn quickly  

Characteristics of bushland plant species: 

  • bushland is usually remnant vegetation in drier inland areas of Australia 

  • leaves are tough and woody (‘sclerophyll’) with low nutritional value 

  • Eucalyptus leaf shape (thin, long), orientation (vertical), colour (silver-grey) and secretions (wax, oils) all reduce water loss  

  • some plants have sharp serrated leaves, or spiny leaves for protection ie. Banksia   

  • bottle trees have water storage capacity and thus very drought-tolerant  

Grassland adaptations:  

  • rapid regrowth capability so grasses can survive heavy grazing and fires  

  • new leaves grow from base of the plant unlike tree shoots 

  • produce plenty of seeds  

  • seeds and flowerheads of grass have adapted structures  such as spikes, burrs, hairs to stick onto animal fur or get easily blown in the wind and therefore disperse far and wide  

  • narrow blade-like leaves do not lose water easily  

  • flexible stalks make can bend in the wind, or else are very short  

  • clumpy shape and leaf blade structure channels water to the middle of the plant and thus straight to the roots 

  • as long as the roots survive grazing and fire, grasses can always grow back  

  • roots are both wide and deep, and sprawl all over in a thick network  

  • grasses depend on worms and detritivores to enrich soil 

Mangroves 

  • aerial roots or ‘knees’ (pneumatophores) stick up vertically out of the mud to breathe oxygen when the tide goes out 

  • trees have a large network of buttress roots to provide stability, push the plant to grow tall above water level, and trap organic matter for nutrients  

  • grow in large clumps in estuaries for added stability  

  • seeds disperse by floating, or are shaped like spears to penetrate the sand and mud 

  • fast-growing  

Note: in similar habitats, palm trunks and leaves are very flexible to bend during strong winds so they do not break  

Ocean 

  • Kelp plants can grow very tall, with many large leaves to capture maximum sunlight, and anchor themselves firmly to rocks with a special root base called a ‘holdfast’, possess air-filled pockets and sacs to keep themselves upright in water, leathery leaf surface minimises corrosive seawater effect  

  • drifting seaweed such as Sargassum floats with the currents to avoid the need for roots and the effects of high water pressure 

  • seaweed colours from ‘Phycobiliproteins’ which are special protein molecules in red seaweed that capture light energy to speed up photosynthesis (which is slow due to cool ocean temperatures)  

  • Y-branching algae are adapted to remain firm in the currents, growing in a thick clump with compact size, and anchored to rock 

Pond 

  • pond plants have various adaptation strategies such as emergent, floating or submerged plants  

  • water lilies cover surface layer and spread leaves out flat to maximise sunlight capture  

  • floating plants like duckweed usually have water-resistant layers or hairs  

  • plants don’t need roots to reach the bottom/ pond bed/ into the ground to absorb nutrients, so they can just float  

  • reeds grow upwards in shallow water and have very long stems  

  • some plants have special spongy tissues with air sacs and hollow channels (aerenchyma) for buoyancy and gaseous air exchange  

  • plants along the banks grow in clumps and have strong roots  

  • seeds disperse through water  

  • plants like lotuses completely dominate the environment by covering the pond surface with large leaves, and the muddy bottom with dense roots 

Taiga 

  • poor nutrients and the cold subarctic climate cause low plant diversity, mostly dominated by tall conifers (pines, firs, spruce) 

  • trees grow tall to avoid herbivores like deer 

  • evergreen leaves are a special adaptation - not shed during winter, so trees don’t have to keep expending energy to regrow new leaves every season  

  • dark green leaves absorb heat from sunlight  

  • downward-pointing leaves and triangular shape allow snow to drop by gravity  

  • needle-shaped leaves prevent snow accumulating and minimise water loss when ground is frozen in winter  

  • soil that is frozen, poor in nutrients and blocked from sunlight will grow moss, lichen, mushrooms and other fungi instead of ground plants  

  • seeds are protected as they grow in hard pinecones  

  • scaly pinecones open to disperse seeds in the short warm summer/ close to protect the seeds when wet  

  • animals like squirrels and deer eat and disperse seed when it is spread to new locations 

Tundra 

  • cold, harsh, dry ecosystem in Arctic, Antarctic and alpine areas 

  • small plant size due to low nutrients in the soil, limited soil water and low light levels, permafrost, snow and harsh winds  

  • plants grow in clumps – huddling together retains warmth and allows wind protection  

  • hairy leaves and stem protects from extreme cold 

  • flowers develop quickly, move following the sun, and have short flowering season to complete their life cycle in the short summers  

  • plants have shallow roots and do not need soil for survival (tundra has very little or no soil) 

  • leaves of many other colours besides green, ie. dark red leaves absorb more heat, and the colour is also from anthocyanin, which protects the plant from cold shock. 

Future Worlds – suitable topic for extended research projects using students' imagination and problem-solving eg. How can plants adapt to severe fires or melting permafrost? 

Did you know? 

Birra birra is the name of the Port Jackson fig tree in Dharug, the language of the First Peoples who inhabit the Sydney region.