Wondernose: What plants grow up to 300 yards in length, yet cannot stand on their own?

by Rebecca Martin | Mar 5, 2024 | 0 comments

This must be some sort of vine, you say, and you are correct. You are thinking of the wild grapevines that grow so profusely over the side of your garage. They certainly resemble our mystery plants; grapevines are woody-stemmed, and they do grow to a great length. However, today I’m thinking of vines that are considerably larger—up to 2 feet (60 cm) thick!

Good guess, Wondernose. You are catching the clues. For a vine to be that thick, it would need to grow in a tropical rainforest, where the weather is warm and wet year-round. Perhaps you’ve read stories with a setting in the jungles of Central America. That would have given you an idea how choked with vines these forests can be.

There. You’ve done enough reading that you can offer the answer to our riddle: lianas. This is a very broad term, actually, and can mean any woody-stemmed vine that’s rooted in the soil but depends on other plants for support as it grows. In the rainforest, lianas become a mighty, intertwined system that practically rules the area. As you know, people wanting to make their way through such a jungle must carry machetes and simply cut a path through the tangled vegetation.

There’s a lot of competition in a rainforest. All the vegetation is competing for space and sunlight! The trees grow very tall, often with a crown of branches only at the top, where the leaves can access the sun.

You see, that’s what green plants must do in order to stay alive. The green parts must have sunlight in order to live. Using sunlight, the plants convert water, carbon dioxide, and nutrients drawn from the soil into sugars that cause the plant to grow. Far down on the ground in a rainforest, you won’t see many flowers or plants that need sunlight. It’s too dark down there. Ferns can grow on the ground; they don’t seem to need much sunlight.

But many of the other plants in a rainforest start their lives high in the trees, where they can access some sun. Such plants are called “epiphytes.” The word simply means a plant that grows on another plant, depending on the host for support but not for nutrients.

So now we can picture how these mighty vines called lianas begin life. A seed may be carried, by the wind or by some animal, to the high branches of a tree. Enough decayed leaves nestle among these branches that the seed begins to grow. Down, down, down it sends its roots, until finally they reach the soil where they become anchored.

At the same time, the vine is growing upward, twining around the trunk of the host tree. It’s also growing larger. I don’t know about you, Wondernose, but I have a hard time picturing a vine that’s two feet thick! It certainly is easy to see that such vines cause tremendous competition for the trees. Some varieties, called stranglers, actually do end up strangling the host. So, in the end, you have a dead tree serving as support for a vibrant system of lianas.

You could think that the soil in a rainforest must be very fertile in order to support such luxuriant vegetation. Surprisingly, however, that’s not the case. Due to all the rainfall, rainforest soils aren’t rich. The nutrients are constantly being leached out by the rain. So where do all these plants get their food? Simply from the leaves and organic matter that accumulate on the surface and decay fairly quickly. Rainforest trees do lose their leaves, but not all at once on a seasonal basis like deciduous trees. Jungle trees are losing their leaves all the time and regrowing them at the same rate. Do you get the picture, Wondernose? It appears that rainforest vegetation provides its own food by dropping its foliage. The process is probably somewhat more complicated than that, but that’s a nutshell way of explaining it. Of course, the plants also derive minerals from the rainwater. Some plants have leaves especially designed to catch and store rainwater!

Think about it, Wondernose. These lianas—hundreds of yards long—must have amazing internal transport systems in order to get nutrients from the roots to the leaves. Can you imagine the minerals and other nutrients inching their way up through the vine as it spirals around the tree trunk? Then, far up in the sun, light is the energy that processes the nutrients to make them usable to the plant. And so it just keeps on growing!

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