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Plants for the End of the World: 15 Survivalist Species
By Steph,
Web Ecoist, 11 June 2012.

They thrive in the world’s hottest deserts, the highest peaks and in sub-zero temperatures of the Arctic tundra. They die - or seem to - and then come back to life. They push and climb and overtake everything in their path. These 15 extreme plants have serious survival instincts, some adapting to the world’s harshest environments and others fiercely fighting to dominate their environments. If climate change or another catastrophic event were to wipe out most of life as we know it on Earth, would these be the plants that took over?

Kudzu: The Vine That Ate The South


It grows up to three feet in a day. It kills most of the plants that it climbs over. It ruins cars and houses, covers fields and is near impossible to control. Kudzu was originally thought to be a boon when it was brought over from Asia to help manage erosion, but it got a little too comfortable in the climatic conditions in the southeast. Kudzu grows in three different ways - runners, rhizomes and seeds - so it can show up again years after it’s been removed from a site. It generally has to be killed with some combination of mowing, fire, herbicides and letting animals like goats and llamas graze on it. Pushing out other plants, kudzu is determined not just to survive but to reign supreme.

Resurrection Plant Rises from the Dead


Someone gives you a strange gift: ‘Resurrection Plant’, it says, or Rose of Jericho. It looks like a tumbleweed - and essentially it is. A tight brown ball of dry plant material that seems dead. But place it in water, and what seems like a miracle will occur: the plant will slowly begin to unfurl, a green tinge coming back into its leaves. This desert plant, a member of the spikemoss family, is often sold as a novelty item. It developed this ability in its native Chihuahuan Desert on the U.S.-Mexico border, going dormant during drought and reviving when it rains.

Polar Plants: Arctic & Antarctic Survivors

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Did you know that the Arctic tundra supports 1,700 species of plants? Most of them grow in the milder areas around the edges, rather than in the snowy, glacial parts that we tend to associate with the Arctic. But some of them can survive in surprisingly cold environments. Two hardy Arctic plants include Salix arctica, also known as ‘Arctic willow‘, and Cladonia rangiferina, known as Reindeer Moss‘. Arctic willow thrives in the Arctic’s temperature range of -70 to 20 degrees Fahrenheit, and has adapted to permafrost with a shallow rot system. Reindeer moss is actually a lichen, and earned its nickname by being an important food source for reindeer and caribou, being one of the only plant sources that’s still around in the dead of Arctic winter.

On the other end of the planet, in Antarctica, there is far less life. This continent has only two native vascular plants - Antarctic hair grass and pearlwort, found in clumps near the shore. Antarctica also has its own particular species of lichen, which are the only plants that survive farther inland.

Weltwitschia Mirabilis: Practically Immortal

(images via: wikimedia commons)

Weltwitschia mirabilis is definitely among the world’s weirdest plants, with just two leaves, a stem base and roots. It appears to have many more leaves because they grow very long, often looping around each other and tearing into strips. Most have a life span of about 400 to 1500 years, but some live up to 2,000 years. Found in the deserts of Namibia and southern Angolia, the plant survives in this environment by collection condensation from fog and reaching underground water with its long taproot.

Mount Everest Moss: Highest Altitude Plant

(images via: wikimedia commons)

What kind of plants grow on the world’s tallest mountain? Twin brothers Willie and Damian Benegas, scientists and explorers, trekked Mount Everest in search of plants - and found a species of moss that was thriving at 21,350 feet above sea level. This moss is exposed to extremely cold temperatures, high winds and ultraviolet radiation. It might just be one of the hardiest plants in the world. The samples provided by the Benegas brothers are currently being identified and studied.

Living Rocks and Other Drought-Proof Plants

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Succulents and cacti are able to last long periods in hot, dry deserts by storing their own water in their leaves, stems and roots. They have thick skins and often a waxy, hairy or spiny surface that reduces air movement around the plant to reduce water loss. Their roots are usually close to the surface of the soil, enabling them to grab moisture from the air or from dew. Succulents initially evolved in Africa, and it wasn’t until they made their way to America that some of them developed the large protective spines that we tend to associate with cacti. Succulents come in many dazzling varieties including lithops, known as ‘living rocks’. They protect themselves from hungry animals by blending in with surrounding stones.

Bamboo: Contain it, Or You’ll Be Sorry

(images via: fleur design)

The fastest-growing plant in the world spreads through underground rhizomes, with some varieties growing out into dense thickets and others growing up. Bamboo can grow over three feet within a span of 24 hours, though a more typical growth rate is about 1-4 inches per day. The thick, woody ‘timber’ varieties can grow up to 98 feet in height and reach 8 inches in diameter. Because they’re so readily adaptable to so many different climates and conditions, bamboo can be extremely invasive - good thing it’s so useful. Many homeowners have found that if they don’t carefully contain stands of bamboo with barriers around the rhizomes in the soil, it will quickly get out of control.

Purple Saxifrage: Blooms at Below Zero

(images via: wikimedia commons)

This record-breaking plant was found close to the summit of Dom, the third highest peak of the Swiss Alps. At 14,780 feet, this doesn’t quite reach the altitude of India’s Mount Kamet in the Western Himalayas, at which another flowering plant was found - but conditions for purple saxifrage in the Alps are much more gruelling. Temperatures drop below zero every night, and the ground is free of snow for only two months out of ever year. That means purple saxifrage needs only 600 hours of temperatures above 3 degrees every year in order to survive.

Rice Plant Survives Both Floods and Drought

(images via: wikimedia commons)

Could rice be the food crop that could save us in the event of catastrophic climate change? Researchers at the University of California at Riverside demonstrated that varieties of rice plants that are flood tolerant are also better able to recover from drought, meaning they might be able to survive and adapt to extreme weather events. The flood-tolerant gene found in some low-yielding rice varieties from India is being cross-bred into high-yielding varieties in the hopes of increasing both flood and drought tolerance as well as maintaining high levels of food production.

Arabidopsis Thaliana: Plant Sent to Outer Space

(images via: wikimedia commons)

What makes this little plant so special? Its genome was the first of the plant world to be sequenced - and its seeds rose on Apollo 16 and Apollo 17, later germinating on earth. Then, in 2009, it was taken on another little trip into outer space on Russian spacecraft Phobos along with other notable species known for their hardiness including the bizarre ‘water bear’ and the world’s toughest bacterium.

[Source: Web Ecoist. Edited.]


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