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Gardening Notes

Originally published in Chuck Connor's Thingumybob 5,
April 1992

It was love at first sight. I knew that Maranta Leuconeura and I were meant for each other as soon as I set eyes on its attractive foliage: broad oblong leaves, with strong red veins reaching from yellow-green midribs across a dark velvety green, with incisive formal strokes.

I returned home from the garden centre to find Marion brooding over wilting buds on her African violets, and offered my sympathies before rhapsodising about my latest acquisition. She brightened in the face of my enthusiasm and took time off from her problems to tell me that the maranta is also known as the prayer plant, because it turns its outspread leaves upward, as if praying, in the evening. This was news to me but observation proved that it was indeed so.

Once aware of the phenomenon, I was intrigued. Being of a systematic turn of mind, I checked the limits and duration of the rise and fall, finding that a pendant leaf rises through an arc of 135 degrees during the evening, falling back to the vertical by the following morning. I continued to measure the height of a leaf tip from the table at regular intervals during the day, for the period of a week or so. Drawing a graph from the readings, plotting height against time, revealed that there was a marked dip from about 7 am, which apparently continued to 7pm, when there was a spectacular rise to maximum erection around midnight. I was uncertain about what happened between 2am and 6am since I could never stay awake to take readings.

However, subsequent observations made me aware that the movement was not so smooth as this initial data implied. Between 10am and noon there were deviations that gave a curious ripple to the curve on the graph. To clarify matters, I took more frequent readings over this period and discovered that the leaves of the maranta fluttered leisurely for an hour or so, before descending to their lowest point. Also, that between 5pm and 7pm there was another oscillatory phase before they rested prior to that spectacular evening climb.

Curious to see this effect in more detail, I rigged up my old Quarz 8mm cine-camera to take timed single-frame exposures during these crucial periods over the next few days. Impatiently, I waited for the film to come back from the process labs, but was rewarded when eventually able to screen the results. It proved to be a revelation, confirming a mounting suspicion: the speeded-up action showed the maranta leaves sweeping up and down in a co-ordinated fashion, flapping as if seeking to get a lift. There was no doubt about it--the maranta was going through all the motions of attempted flight.

It was while relating all this to Eric, plant psychologist at the local garden centre, over a pint one evening in the 'Stock Dove', that I perceived a role emerging for myself as a plant trainer. Eric was droning on about more and more scientists (and royalty) being convinced that a harmony exists between all living things on the planet Earth, and how plants are equipped to respond to human behaviour in more ways than we know. That was it: I decided to encourage the maranta in its efforts, to become its mentor and model.

Every day, in the late morning, I took the plant out in the open air and set it an example by standing there before it, flapping my arms in slow motion. The neighbours' curiosity was roused by this routine; my concentration suffered as I became aware of stealthy movements, spying eyes and whispered comments behind the hedge dividing the gardens. But Marion set their minds at rest with some story that I'd taken up the ancient Chinese exercise of t'ai chi; certainly at this early stage my efforts bore some resemblance to the essentially slow gentle rhythmic movements of that oriental discipline. Thereafter, I was able to pursue my training sessions without distraction, and application was rewarded when the maranta was able to match the rhythm of my swaying arms. Continued practice limbered up its leaf stems and, with this new-found flexibility, I was able to speed up the ritual.

All this regular exercise was making me feel decidedly spry. It seemed time to test out its effect on the maranta. Placed on a delicately balanced scale, a distinct lift was apparent during the more vigorous part of the routine. It was a great day when, not long after, freed from the confinement of its pot, the maranta was able to make its first momentous hops into the air, unaided. Soon, leaves flailing, it remained airborne for a brief spell.

But summer had sped by, there was a decided nip in the air. I fancy the combined effect of chill weather and frantic activity proved too much for the plant; being taken out of the shelter of its pot probably didn't help either. The maranta drooped: its glorious foliage yellowed and faded. Fortunately all was not lost. I rescued a few healthy off-shoots and reared them during the winter in a soil-less hydroponics cabinet designed by Eric at short notice, in which the roots were able to mop up sustenance without the restraints of soil in a pot. Thanks to a borrowed sun lamp they are thriving, making phenomenal leaf growth. In the coming year, given a good summer and intensive training, I hope to launch the world's first flying marantas into the skies above Romiley.

The Guinness Book of Records has been warned to stand by... ■

one of a series of occasional pieces published by the Septuagenarian Fans Association, June 1998

© Harry Turner, 1998.

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