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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 54/December 1898/Light and Vegetation



LIGHT is the most important of all the external agencies which influence the vegetal organism, and the sun's rays have been the most potent force in shaping the development of existent plant forms.

The sunbeam stands in a manifold relation to the plant. First and foremost, light is the universal source of energy, by the aid of which the chlorophyll apparatus in green leaves builds up complex food substances from simple compounds obtained from the soil and air, a process necessary for the nutrition of the entire living world. Some obscure organisms, such as the "nitrosomonas," soil bacteria, are able to accomplish the construction of complex substances, by means of energy derived from other chemical compounds, which were, however, formed originally by green plants. These food-building processes are designated as photosynthesis, chemosynthesis, electrosyn thesis, thermosynthesis, etc., according to the source of energy used.

By photosynthesis, carbon dioxide from the air and water from the cell are combined in the green cells of leaves, forming sugar and possibly other substances. During this process an amount of oxygen approximately equal to that of the carbon dioxide taken up is exhaled. It will be of interest to note the relation of the living world to the atmosphere. Eight hundred to nine hundred grammes of carbon dioxide are produced in the respiration of a single person for a day, and the entire product of the human race for this period is twelve hundred million kilogrammes. In addition, large quantities of the gas result from the combustion of the four hundred and sixty millions of kilogrammes of coal and wood burned yearly. The lower animals, fungi, and green plants themselves contribute an amount which must bring the total to twice the immense sum named above. The atmosphere contains three or four hundredths of one per cent of carbon dioxide, or an amount of about two to three thousand billions of kilogrammes. No especial variation in this proportion has been detected since observations upon this point were first made. The fact that no increase takes place is partly due to the absorption of the gas by plants, and its replacement by oxygen, and also to certain geological processes in constant operation. Absorption takes place at the rate of about two and a half grammes for every square metre of leaf surface per hour, or about twenty-five to thirty grammes daily, since the process goes on only in daylight. It is to be seen that a single human being exhales as much carbon dioxide as may be removed from the air by thirty or forty square metres of leaf surface. According to Ebermayer, a hectare (2.47 acres) of forest would use eleven thousand kilogrammes of carbon dioxide yearly, and the amount used by plants is generally much in excess of that furnished by the activity of the inhabitants of any given area. Plants thrive and show increasing vigor as the amount of carbon dioxide in the air rises until two hundred times the present proportion is reached. An increase of the gas in the atmosphere would therefore be partly corrected by the absorption and by the stronger vegetation induced. Nothing short of a comprehensive cataclysm could work such disturbance to the composition of the air as to endanger the well-being of the animal inhabitants of the earth.

The activity of a square metre of leaf surface results in the formation of one and a half to two grammes of solid substance per hour in sunlight. A vigorous sunflower with one hundred and forty-five leaves constructed thirty-six grammes of solid matter in a day, and a squash with one hundred and sixteen leaves one hundred and sixteen grammes in the same length of time. The amounts formed by such trees as the beech, maple, oak, poplar, elm, and horse-chestnut, with leaf surfaces aggregating three hundred to one thousand square metres, must be correspondingly large.

A comparison of plants grown in strong sunlight, diffuse light, and darkness will reveal many differences in stature and internal structure. These differences are for the most part due to the formative and tonic effect of light. Otherwise expressed, the influence of variations of light upon plants causes adaptive reactions, and disturbances of the nutritive processes and growth.

In consequence of these facts the reaction of any given organ to changes in the intensity of the illumination will depend upon its specific functions and relation to the remainder of the organism.

The stems formed by seedlings and awakening underground organs are usually surrounded by plants or other objects which cut off more or less sunlight. The developing shoot can not spread its leaves to the light advantageously until it has outstripped or grown beyond the objects intervening between it and the light. This necessity is one of the most important conditions in the struggle for existence. To meet it, a very great majority of seed-forming plants have acquired the power of accelerated elongation of the stems when deprived of their normal amount of light.

Very striking examples of this reaction are offered by the awakening corms of the Jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisæma triphyllum). The corms usually lie at a distance of five or six centimetres below the surface of the soil, and when the growth of the large bud begins in the spring the heavy sheathing scales elongate and pierce the soil, opening when the surface is reached at the distance of a few centimetres. If the corm should have been buried deeper in the substratum by floods or drifts of leaves, the growth of the bud scales will continue until the light is reached, though it may be a distance of twenty centimetres. Such growth may be seen if the corms are grown in a deep layer of sphagnum moss, or in a dark room.

After the stems emerge from the "drawn" buds they show a similar attenuation, attaining a length of twice the normal. The excessive elongation of stems is accompanied by variations in the structure and contents of the tissues. The cells are generally longer, while the walls are thinner. In consequence, organs grown in darkness are very weak and easily bent or broken. Growth in darkness is attended by the non-formation of chlorophyll. This is replaced by etiolin, giving the plant a pale, waxy, yellow appearance.

The adaptive elongation is not shown by all species, however. It has been found that stems of beet, hop, dioscorea, and a few others show no adaptations to diminished light. The adaptive modification of stems elongating in darkness is developed from the retarding influence exercised by light upon growth. Thus it is a well-known fact that the action of certain portions of the sun's rays actually impedes or checks the increase in volume known as growth, though it does not influence actual division of the cells to any great extent. When this retarding action is eliminated excessive elongation ensues. The behavior of leaves in illuminations below the normal depends upon the relation of these organs to the storage structures of the plant as well as upon other factors, and many types are dependent upon their own activity for plastic material necessary for growth.

It is to be said in general that leaves of dicotyledonous plants are incapable of full development in darkness, though to this rule there are many exceptions. Thus the leaves of the beet develop normally, or nearly so, in darkness.

On the other hand, leaves of monocotyledonous plants attain normal size in darkness, especially those with straight or curved parallel venation. Some, as the iris, swamp marigold, and onion, attain a greater length in darkness than in light. Here, as in stems, cell division is not modified, but the growth of the individual cell is increased.

The growth of leaves in darkness may be easily observed if the underground perennial stems of common mandrake are placed in a dark chamber before the growth of the leaf buds has begun. The leaves are peltate, and in the bud are folded about the end of the petiole after the manner of an umbrella. Usually this umbrella expands as soon as it has pushed upward and become free from the soil, attaining a diameter of twenty-five to forty centimetres when outspread. In darkness, however, it refuses to unfold, the laminae are pale yellow and retain the crumpled form of the bud, and as the petiole shows an exaggerated elongation the organ takes on the appearance of a very small parasol on a very long handle. The imperfect development of leaves and the rapid decay of aerial organs deprived of sunlight leads to the conclusion that the action of light is necessary to the health and normal activity of these organs, and the light therefore exercises a tonic influence upon vegetation.

Many species of plants are so plastic and capable of such ready response to variations in external conditions that they undergo distinct morphological changes in response to variations in the intensity of the light. The common potato is an example of this fact. The edible tubers are simply thickened stems, and the plant has the habit of storing starch in any stems not acted upon by the light. The branches arising from the base of the main stem are generally underneath the surface of the soil, and afford the proper conditions for tuber formation. Sugar is constructed in the leaves, carried down the length of the stem, and deposited in the underground branches as starch. Space is made for the accumulating store by the multiplication of the thin-walled cells of the pith. If any of the upper branches should become shaded, they become at once the focus of converging streams of sugar, and similar enlargement ensues, resulting in the formation of tubers. Such structures are occasionally observed in plants grown thickly together,

Vöchting, by a number of most ingenious experiments, has succeeded in producing tubers on any branch of a potato plant by simply inclosing the branch in a small dark chamber. As the result of one experiment the entire main stem springing from a sprouting tuber was converted into a new tuber nearly as large as the first. The entire plant at the close of the experiment had the form of a dumbbell, with the old tuber as one ball and the new tuber as the other.

The same writer has described important results obtained from a study of the action of light upon the stems of cactus, consisting of a number of flattened internodes. When the growing tips of such plants were allowed to develop in a dark chamber the new internodes grown were cylindrical in form. Such behavior suggests that these plants were originally furnished with cylindrical stems and foliar leaves. The leaves at some time in the history of the plant were found unsuitable, and gradually atrophied, while the stems were flattened and extended to take up their functions.

Some very striking adaptations of form of organs to the intensity of the light have been analyzed by Goebel. The common harebell (Campanula rotundifolia) has an upright stem twenty to sixty centimetres in height. The upper part of the stem bears sessile lanceolate leaves, decreasing in size from the base to the summit. The first leaves formed by the stem on its emergence from the soil are entirely different in construction, showing a heart-shaped lamina with a distinct petiole. These leaves are formed at the actual surface of the soil, are generally more or less shaded or covered by fallen leaves, and in fact are not known or seen by many collectors or observers of the plant. Goebel found that similar leaves might be formed on any part of the plant if it were shaded from the full glare of the sun's rays. The cordate leaves at the base of the stem were always produced, however, no matter to what intensity of illumination that part of the plant was subjected. It is therefore safe to conclude that the cordate leaves are inherited forms, and that the lanceolate organs are adaptations to light which may be shown by any individual of the species.

In general it is to be said that the leaves of sun-loving species have a thick epidermis, entirely free from chlorophyll, with stomata on the lower side only, a firm consistence due to the formation of woody tissues, and are often provided with a coating of hairs. The leaves of shade-loving plants, on the other hand, have a thin-walled epidermis often containing chlorophyll, stomata on both sides, and are not so plentifully provided with hairs as those in exposed situations.

The variations in external form described above are due to the intensity of the illumination. At the same time the structure and arrangement of the cells depend on the direction from which the light rays come. Thus, an organ receiving light from one side only will exhibit a structure different from an organ of the same kind receiving direct rays from two or more sides. Light, then, is a cause of dorsiventrality—that is, of the fact that the upper and lower sides of organs are not alike in structure. The leaf affords a splendid example of dorsiventrality as a result of the exposure of one side only to direct light. The upper side of a horizontal leaf, such as the oak, beech, or maple, contains one or two layers of cylindrical cells with their long axes perpendicular to the surface. In vertical leaves, such as the iris, these palisade cells, as they are termed, are not so well defined, and in all leaves grown in darkness this tissue is very much reduced. If a young leaf not yet unfolded from the bud is fastened in such a position that the under side is uppermost, palisade cells will be formed on the side exposed to the direct rays of the sun.

The influence of light upon the sporophylls, or reproductive organs of the seed-forming plants, is quite as well defined as upon the vegetative organs.

In general it is to be said that stamens and pistils may reach functional maturity in darkness or diffuse light, and if pollination is provided for, seed and fruit formation may ensue.

The diminution of light has the effect of transforming inflorescences into leafy shoots in some instances, however. The more common reaction consists of alterations in the size, form, and color of the perianth, and greater changes are induced in the petals than in the sepals. The corolla shows greater decrease in size in Melandryum and Silene, in diffuse light, though the relative form is maintained. The writer has obtained most striking results from growing flowers of Salvia (sage) in a dark chamber, inclosing the inflorescence only. In the normal flower the irregular scarlet corolla attains three times the length of the calyx, and two stamens extrude from under the upper lip. When grown in darkness, the corolla with the adherent stamens measure about three millimetres in length, or one twelfth the normal, and are scarcely more than half the size of the calyx, which is but two thirds the size of similar organs grown in the light. The color is entirely lacking from the corolla, and is found only along the veins of the calyx.

In other instances in which the corolla is composed of separate members, an unequal reaction is exhibited. The corolla of nasturtium (Tropæolum majus) consists of five approximately equal petals. Flowers of this species grown in darkness show one of nearly normal stature, two of reduced size, while the remaining two take the form of club-shaped bracts.

The diminished size of the perianth of cleistogamous flowers of such types as the violet is due directly to the action of diminished light upon the hidden or inclosed flower.

The influence of light upon the structure, reproductive processes, and distribution of the lower forms brings about the most widely divergent reactions, which can not be described here.

The distribution and color of marine algae depend upon the depth of the water and the consequent intensity of the light. This gives rise to distinct zones of aquatic vegetation. Thus in one series of surveys the littoral zone, the beach area covered at high water and exposed at low water, was found to furnish proper conditions for green, brown, and red algae. The sublittoral zone, extending to a depth of forty metres, is furnished with red algæ, increasing in number with the depth, and the brown algae disappear; while the elittoral zone, from forty to one hundred and ten metres, is inhabited by red algæ alone. The number of species of vegetal organisms below this depth is extremely small. An alga (Halospheeria viridis) has been brought up from depths of one thousand to two thousand metres.

A very great number of bacteria are unfavorably affected by light, and find proper conditions at some depth in the soil or water. It is on account of this fact that the water of frozen streams becomes more thickly inhabited by certain organisms than in the summer time, and exposure to sunlight is adopted as a hygienic measure in freeing clothing and household effects from infection. Bacteria occur abundantly in sea water at depths of two hundred to four hundred metres, and quite a number of species are to be found at eight hundred to eleven hundred metres.

The distribution of fungi follows the general habit of bacteria in that they thrive best in darkness.

It is to be noticed in this connection that light is also a determining factor in the distribution of the higher land plants. Thus the amount of light received in polar latitudes is quite insufficient for the needs of many species, entirely irrespective of temperature.

The retarding influence of light upon growth is even more marked in the lower forms than in the higher. Such action is the result of the disintegrating effect of the blue-violet rays upon ferments and nitrogenous plastic substances.

The greater massiveness of the bodies of the higher plants enables them to carry on the chemical activities in which these substances are concerned in the interior, where the intense rays may not penetrate. The attenuated and undifferentiated fungi must seek the shade, to escape the dangers of strong light, against which they have no shield.

The reproductive processes are particularly sensitive to illumination. The formation of zoöspores by green felt (Vaucheria) may occur only in darkness, at night, or in diffuse light, and these examples might be multiplied indefinitely. Many features of the germination of spores and the growth of protonemæ or prothallia among the mosses, liverworts, and ferns are determined by light.

Perhaps the most striking reactions of plants to light are to be seen in locomotor and orientation movements.

Locomotor movements are chiefly confined to lower forms, and are most noticeable in the "swarm spores," or zoöspores of the algse, though exhibited by spermatozoöids as well. Zoöspores may be seen collected against the side of the vessel receiving direct sunlight, while the opposite side of the vessel will be free from them. The chlorophyll bodies of green cells arrange themselves similarly. The latter bodies may move away from the exposed side of the cell if the light exceeds a certain intensity.

The typical plant may not move its body toward or away from the source of light, but it may secure the same end by dispositions of its surfaces to vary the angle at which the rays are received. This form of irritability is one of the most highly developed properties of the plant. Wiesner has found that a seedling of the vetch is sensitive to an amount of light represented by one ten-millionth of a unit represented by a Roscoe-Bunsen flame. The "sensitiveness" to light may take one of three forms: The organ may place its axis parallel and pointing toward the source of the rays, as in stems, when it is said to be proheliotropic; the axis of the organ may assume a position perpendicular to the rays, which is designated as diaheliotropism; or it may place its axis parallel to the rays and pointing away from the light, when it is said to be apheliotropic. Upright stems are proheliotropic, horizontal leaves and creeping stems are diaheliotropic, and roots and such stems as those of ivy are apheliotropic.

Sunlight varies from zero to the full blaze of the noonday sun, and assumes its greatest intensity in the equatorial regions. The intensity in latitudes 40° to 45° north would be represented by 1.5 units, and at the equator by 1.6 units. Near the equator the intensity is so great that an ordinary leaf may not receive the full force of the noonday sun without damage. The injury would not result from the luminous rays, but from the temperatures, 40° to 50° C, arising from the conversion of light into heat. As an adaptation to this condition nearly all leaves have either a pendent or a vertical position, or the power of assuming this position by motor or impassive wilting movements.

Among the plants of the temperate zone the so-called compass plants are examples of similar adaptations. The compass plants include, among others, the wild lettuce (Lactuca scariola) and rosin weed (Silphium laciniatum). These plants place the leaves in a vertical position with the tips pointing north and south in such manner that the direct rays of the morning and evening sun only may strike the surfaces at right angles, while the edges are presented to the fierce rays at noonday. That this arrangement is an adaptation against the intense light is evident when it is seen that specimens growing in shaded locations or in diffuse light place the leaves in the typical horizontal position. To meet the functional conditions, both sides of the compass leaves are almost equally provided with palisade cells for food formation and stomata for transpiration. The estimation of the light striking a compass leaf shows that it receives approximately the same amount of light as a horizontal leaf during the course of a day, but the two maxima of intensity, morning and evening, are much below that of the noon of horizontal leaves.

The influence of light upon plants may be briefly summed as follows:

Light is necessary for the formation of food substances by green plants, and it is an important factor in distribution in land and marine forms.

Growth and reproduction are generally retarded by the action of the blue-violet rays.

Light is fatal to certain bacteria and other low forms of vegetable life.

Many plants have the power of accelerated growth of stems in diminished light as an adaptation for lifting the leaves above "shading" objects.

The growth of many leaves and of the perianth of flowers is hindered in diminished light.

The outward form of many organs, particularly leaves, is dependent upon the intensity of the light received.

The internal structure of bilateral or dorsiventral organs is largely determined by the direction of the rays.

Plants have the power of movement to adjust their surfaces to a proper angle with impinging light rays, as a protective adaptation.


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