Think giant plant. Are you imagining a towering California redwood? Think again.
The biggest plant in the world is a Poseidon’s ribbon weed. It’s not tall; it’s wide! This seagrass spreads over 111 miles. The vast underwater weed grows off the coast of western Australia in Shark Bay, which has more seagrass than any place in the world.
Researchers took samples from 10 seagrass meadows in Shark Bay. They wanted to discover which kinds are the heartiest. Scientists were stunned to find the samples all have the same genetic code. They come from one plant that made copies of itself. The original plant is believed to be 4,500 years old.
For size perspective, there are some cloned seagrass meadows off the east coast of the United States that sprawl for about 30 miles. This patch of Poseidon’s ribbon weed is more than three times larger!
“It’s the largest known example of a clone in any environment on Earth,” says biologist Elizabeth Sinclair.
The title for biggest plant used to belong to a grove of quaking aspen trees called Pando in Utah. Pando is Latin for “I spread out.” The trees did just that: One starter tree sent out shoots sideways under the soil. The shoots made sprouts that popped through the ground and became over 47,000 more trees. What looks like a forest is a single organism!
Poseidon’s ribbon weed functions the same way. One plant made a clone of itself by sending out an underground shoot. These shoots are called rhizomes. They store starches, proteins, and other nutrients. New sprouts come from rhizomes and use the nutrients to grow.
In recent years, heat waves have killed or damaged seagrass meadows. But ribbon weed is particularly resilient.
Usually the more genetically diverse a plant is, the better it fights disease and adapts to change. Plants that clone themselves are often at risk. Ribbon weed seems to be a hybrid of two original seagrass species. While most plants receive half of each parent plant’s genetic information, Poseidon seagrass contains 100% of each original parent’s genetic code.
“So it has a lot of genetic diversity in it, which is why it has been able to persist as long as it has,” Sinclair says. “It’s blown a lot of people away, including people in our research team.”
Seagrass provides a habitat for many small creatures. It also filters and cleans the ocean. Environmentalists hope to plant more ribbon grass in areas where extreme heat has caused damage.
Why? God astounds us with the brilliant ways He designs plants to survive. Scientists can learn from the strongest plants and strategize how to restore struggling habitats.