This chemical can turn you into Poison Ivy

Image for article titled This chemical can turn you into Poison Ivy

One simple molecule, two carbon atoms, each attended by two hydrogen atoms, can make you all-powerful in the plant world. Apply it and flowers shrivel up fast, leaves yellow, and the entire plant dies off quickly — or grows even more enthusiastically. How can you get the power of life and death over plants?


Although it is possible to collect this chemical on your own and use it as a weapon against plants like a reverse-Poison-Ivy, it's even better to get a minion plant to do your bidding. Fortunately, we have a traitor right on hand. Not content to biblically damn humans, apples have turned on their own kind as well, and put out this chemical in abundance. People who store peaches or pears with apples generally come back to find them rotten through. People who store bananas with apples notice they ripen more quickly than usual. This isn't a coincidence — apples give off a steady stream of ethylene, a hormone made up of hydrogen and carbon, that speeds up the lifespans of all the plants around them.

Image for article titled This chemical can turn you into Poison Ivy

Ethylene is the hormone that regulates the maturity of a plant, from a germinated seed all the way to a ripened fruit. Given off by apples, bananas, and evergreens, and mixed in with car exhaust, it is the bane of florists everywhere. Flower shops will keep plants away from the doorway and ban any fruit from the store. (This is one of the reasons why bouquets bought at grocery stores and supermarkets fade quickly — they're next to produce.) Some florists segregate plants by ethylene production and sensitivity, and keep the shop chilly to minimize ethylene reception.

Some, of course, bypass the problem by buying plants from breeders that have managed to shut off either the production or sensitivity to ethylene, but this has its own problems. Shut off the ethylene in a flower, and the scent is snuffed out along with it. If flowers with insensitivity to ethylene smell at all, they've probably been perfumed. You can't get scent without ephemerality.

More importantly, if you shut off ethylene production and sensitivity, you lose out on a lot of the power you get over plants. Ethylene doesn't just kill off plants, it toys with them. With it, researchers can make branches split off from the main plant. They can initiate ripening of overly-young fruit. They can even get roots to form outside of their normal pattern. From the top to the bottom, properly applied ethylene can re-shape a plant. One chemical and you can play Plantmaster with nearly anything. Using ethylene you can grow a plant, twist it into a mutant shape — above and below ground — and then kill it off. Sounds like a relatively harmless way to occupy the time of the power-mad dictators of the world.

Or at least it would be... until the plants rebel.

Top Image: Sam Fraser-Smith

Second Image: USDA

Via Cornell and Flower Confidential.




until the plants rebel.

Wait, what?