November 17, 2005 | David F. Coppedge

Winter Plant’s Thermostat Keeps It Cozy As a Skunk

Skunk cabbage.  Pew.  Do you like the meditative name “Zen plant” better?  Well, meditate on how this amazing plant keeps warm while it emerges through the last snows of winter.  Skunk cabbage is one of two plants known to regulate its body temperature.  Science Now reported on research by Japanese scientists who studied its thermostat. 

First, they tracked the spadix [central stalk] temperatures of two wild populations of skunk cabbage over time and compared them to the air temperature.  After making sure the fluctuations were not just random noise, the team determined that the plant used only two or three pieces of information, or variables, to regulate its internal temperature.  That meant the plant‘s thermostat had to follow a fairly simple rule, perhaps like the oven in your kitchen.  If a high-end oven gets too hot, it turns itself off; it may also track how fast its temperature is rising or falling and the temperature of the kitchen outside, making adjustments accordingly.

The photo caption calls the skunk cabbage “Nature’s Oven” and states, “Skunk cabbage uses a simple mathematical formula to keep itself warm.”  The article admired the research, but said a bigger question remains: finding how these two or three variables work at the molecular level.

Plants are better at math than some scientists.  Even if we uncover the mechanism in detail, it would beg the question of how this ability got there in the first place.  Scientists who don’t want to think about that could at least work on emulating the clean, efficient source of energy derived from sunshine, air and water.

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