There are things I look forward to seeing every season.
In spring, I watch for “mighty plants” that emerge from the ground with enough force to heave the soil above ground. These botanical weightlifters—the bulbs, grasses, and other emergent plants—pushing up soil that was compressed by a blanket of snow never fail to impress me. I am in awe of the strength of plants.
Seeing bulbs coming up all around me inspires lots of questions. I want to understand how this is possible and I want to test their strength. So I spent a few weeks playing around with this phenomenon in the Learning Center’s Boeing Nature Laboratory.
To begin, I wanted to demonstrate that seeds will lift soil in a pot. I soaked bunch of wheat seeds overnight and planted them in a pot. I covered them with a generous amount of potting soil (about a 1/2-inch layer) and I tamped the soil down gently so that it would be compressed—like the topsoil might be after a winter of snow cover. Three days later, I had results! I sprayed the soil disk to give it a little adhesion, so I could see how long it would hold together as the grass lifted it up.
That was so much fun, I tried the same thing with a bunch of bean seeds.
This demonstration was pretty easy and impressive. It is a simple activity to illustrate how plants and other living things change their environment to suit their needs (which is a disciplinary core idea in Next Generation Science Standards for kindergarten). I recommend doing it in the classroom or at home, just for fun.
This is just the beginning. I will be sharing the results in a future blog post. But before I do, I would like to make a few points about the nature of science and how scientists work.
- Science is a collection of established facts and ideas about the world, gathered over hundreds of years. It is also the process by which these facts are learned. Science is both “knowing” and “doing.”
- Discoveries start when you watch nature and ask questions, as I did in watching spring bulbs come up. Before beginning an experiment, scientists play. They mess around with materials and concoct crazy ideas. They are constantly asking, “I wonder what will happen if I do ___ ?” That is when discoveries actually happen.
- Scientists do formal experiments with purpose, hypothesis, procedures, results, and conclusions after they think they have made a discovery. They use the experiment to test their discovery and provide convincing evidence to support it. In some cases, the experiment disproves a fact or idea, which is a different kind of new understanding about the world.
I have to agree with Boyce Tankersley, the Garden’s director of Living Plant Documentation, who recently wrote “The SciFi Rant.” Those of us who lean toward botany instead of horticulture are more interested in growing plants to yield ideas rather than meals. In my continuing investigation, I have two goals, and neither is to produce anything to eat.
First, I want to determine the strength of sprouting seeds and see how far I can push them. For example, how many bean sprouts will it take to lift a coconut? I want to find a standard way to measure seed strength.
Second, I want to establish a reliable method for experimenting with seed strength so teachers and students can replicate the procedure, modify it as needed, and use it for their own investigations without going through the awkward phase of figuring out the best way to do this.
I invite you on my journey.
(To be continued.)
©2018 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org
4 thoughts on “The Power of Plants: Botanical Weightlifters”
Thank you for this delightful and informative article. Your explanation of the scientific process is not only clear, but shows how exciting scientific exploration is. Looking forward to updates!
Your post really got my brain going on this grey friday morn.
I want more..Wow
One of the recent (and ancient ideas) in horticulture is permaculture/agroforestry where there are investigations on how create these systems, to eat more of the (natural or human created) forests’ products and grow more in a less mono-cultural system than the current commercial agriculture promotes. You appear to denigrate a focus on food because to you “that’s not *SCIENCE*”; however, to most universities, basic *and applied* sciences are both *Science*.
I had understood that Science was about advancing humanity’s knowledge base of “objects”/organisms, processes and systems thru reproducible experimentation and while Horticulture may have less formally trained proponents who aren’t publishing their research in the usual journals, the individuals performing the experiments can *still* be using the scientific method for their projects.
Hello, RW-in-DC: Your point is taken, and I agree with you. I’m sorry if you misunderstood my humor. When joking about coming up with ideas instead of food I was referring to Boyce Tankersley’s article where he says the astronaut in “The Martian” would have been a horticulturist instead of a botanist, or he would have starved. As you pointed out, there is the science of food production in various ways and then there is science practiced by those of us who torture plants to learn new things. One is not more important than the other. Representatives from both disciplines play around with plants to make discoveries and then follow a logical, scientific method to advance our existence and understanding of the world.
My message is that science is as much about doing investigations as it is knowing facts, which is not just fun and exciting–it is also a shift in the approach to science teaching.
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