by RUSSELL MCLENDON
Rip Van Winkle, the titular ne’er-do-well of Washington Irving’s 1819 short story, famously spent 20 years napping in a forest. This lengthy slumber, apparently triggered by ghost liquor, caused Van Winkle to sleep through the American Revolutionary War.
Nearly two centuries later, scientists are shedding light on plants that do something similar in real life. A surprisingly diverse mix of plants around the world can live dormant underground for up to 20 years, researchers report in the journal Ecology Letters, a strategy that allows the plants to survive hard times by simply napping until things get better.
At least 114 species from 24 plant families are capable of this trick, in which a plant abandons photosynthesis to focus on survival in the soil. It’s a way for plants to hedge their bets, the study’s authors explain, by accepting certain short-term hardships — like missed opportunities to grow and reproduce — for the longer-term benefits of avoiding mortal dangers on the surface.
“It would seem to be paradoxical that plants would evolve this behavior, because being underground means they cannot photosynthesize, flower or reproduce,” says co-author Michael Hutchings, an ecology professor at the University of Sussex, in a statement. “And yet this study has shown that many plants in a large number of species frequently exhibit prolonged dormancy.”
So how do these Rip Van Winkle plants survive for up to 20 years without sunlight? Many species have found other ways to endure dormancy, Hutchings says, especially “by evolving mechanisms enabling them to obtain carbohydrates and nutrients from soil-based fungal associates.” Befriending soil fungi, he adds, “allows them to survive and even thrive during dormant periods.”
This strategy is used by many orchid species (including the lady’s slipper orchids pictured above), along with a wide variety of other plant types. It typically occurs in only part of a population or species during any given year, the researchers note, so the broader population can keep growing and reproducing while the designated survivors wait underground as backup.