Tree Curl
Dennis DeHart

sLowlife: Plants in Motion

We know that plants are living organisms, but rarely do we experience them as such. The images in this photo essay bridge the gap between human perception and plant life, showing plants as they move and grow.

We owe our existence to plants—those seemingly insignificant life forms that we barely notice and often take for granted. Without plants our world would be uninhabitable. They are the only forms of life able to harness the sun’s energy and convert it into the air we breathe, the food we eat, and the fuel we burn.

Many of us think of plants as inanimate, decorative objects. We arrange flowers or plants in our gardens and homes to best suit our desires. But in fact plants are alive and sensitive to their environments, usually responding at speeds too slow for us to notice.

After developing his theory of evolution Charles Darwin began systematically studying how and why plants move. In 1880 he wrote, “The leaflets . . . of some plants are known to be injured by too much light; and when the sun shines brightly on them, they move . . . so that they direct their edges toward the light, and thus they escape being injured.” Darwin’s work forever changed the way science examines and interprets plant life.

Although plants cannot walk, they seek, search, and avoid. Like other organisms, plants move to improve their access to resources or to avoid injury. Through changes in growth patterns, constant intricate cellular movement, germination, life, and death, plants are in constant motion.

This spring CHF’s museum will present the magnificent and innovative traveling exhibit, sLowlife. Through sound, video, and still photography sLowlife captures the complex, fascinating, and haunting beauty of these organisms living in slow motion.


sLowlife Growth

Growth

Roger Hangarter and Dennis DeHart

Growth

The mouse-eared cress (Arabidopsis thaliana) is arguably the most studied plant in the world. Its small size and rapid life cycle of about 50 days make it ideal for experimental investigation. In the year 2000 Arabidopsis was the first plant to have all of its genes sequenced. Studies of its genetic functions are transforming our understanding of the growth and development of plants from across the kingdom. The activity of many genes must be finely orchestrated for any organism to successfully grow, develop, and respond to its environment through all stages of life. The images sequenced here are from the movie Arabidopsis thaliana: A Life, which shows a single plant playing out its life from germination, through growth, flowering, and seed formation, to ensuing death.


sLowlife 101 Tropisms

101 Tropisms

Roger Hangarter and Dennis DeHart

sLowlife 101 Tropisms - On Display

101 Tropisms

Roger Hangarter and Dennis DeHart

101 Tropisms

The word tropism refers to plants’ turning movement in response to environmental stimulus. Time-lapse video is one way to observe and measure such phenomena. Here 101 videos of tropism of the mouse-eared cress are brought together to form an installation piece. The display presents a unique form of imaging both in its technique and as a system of observation. It employs a visual system in which the sum of the varying parts form a larger whole. As one spends time observing 101 Tropisms, a variety of patterns and phenomena become distinguishable. These patterns form the basis for a kind of visualization rooted in technology’s ability to amass information.


sLowlife Chlorophyll

Chlorophyll

Roger Hangarter and Dennis DeHart

Chlorophyll

Chlorophyll is one of nature’s magical potions. It is present in all green plants and is responsible for light absorption, which provides energy for photosynthesis. Photosynthesis generates oxygen—a source of life for our planet. This flask contains chlorophyll extracted from spinach leaves. When a beam of light passes through the extract, the chlorophyll absorbs the energy, which is the first step in photosynthesis. Because the chlorophyll in this flask has been isolated from the plant, energy cannot be converted and stored. Instead the energy is released as heat and red fluorescence.


sLowlife Microprocessing v2

Microprocessing

Roger Hangarter and Dennis DeHart

Microprocessing

Plants may appear to be remarkably still and calm compared with animals. But inwardly plants are far from still. Within each rigid cell wall, plant cells are constantly moving their cellular contents about. Time-lapse microscopy reveals a fascinating choreography of movements of cellular components. With the aid of technology these ever-present cellular movements reveal their important work. Some cellular movements can change in an instant in response to environmental stimuli, demonstrating that the apparent outward stillness of plants is a facade for their true dynamic nature. These still images from the Microprocessing series show chloroplasts in leaf cells, captured as they were being drawn to the upper surface of the cells in response to the leaf’s exposure to low-intensity light.


sLowlife Tree Curl

Tree Curl

Dennis DeHart

Tree Curl

In botany, morphology is the study of plants’ form and structure; physiology deals primarily with plants’ functions. The shapes, growth patterns, and environmental influences of plants can often result in a truly arresting form. But a closer look reveals that there is function as well. Here a tree’s unique shape of the branches is a direct result of its mountainside location. The photograph, taken in Guanacaste Province, Costa Rica, documents the tree’s energetic struggle to compete with other plants in an environment limited by such resources as sunlight and water.


sLowlife Sun Worship

Sun Worship

Roger Hangarter

Sun Worship

Throughout their lives plants explore and respond to their environment. They orient themselves so that they can better access sunlight, water, and nutrients, and they move to avoid competition or injury. This still image, from a time-lapse movie, illustrates innate plant responses to light and gravity. In response to the light from a small bulb, the surrounding corn seedlings appear to bow, as if in worship of this fleeting source of energy. The bowing behavior of the seedlings shows a conflict between their attraction to light (phototropism) and their tendency to grow upright in response to gravity (gravitropism). These tropistic movements endow plants with the power to explore and adjust to their immediate environment.


sLowlife is a collaborative project of the United States Botanic Garden, the Chicago Botanic Garden, and Roger Hangarter, Indiana University. Original sounds by John Gibson, Indiana University. Additional support was provided by Indiana University, the National Science Foundation, and the American Society of Plant Biologists.