The Story Behind The Dancing Plant’s Elusive, Mysterious Tango

Codariocalyx motorius, also known as the Telegraph Plant, the Semaphore Plant, or Dancing Grass, reacts to light, small vibrations, temperature, and radio signals by subtly rotating its leaves. According to research, the movement occurs in order to maximize the amount of light absorbed and to facilitate the transpiration of water.

Native to tropical Asia, the shrub is jointed at the stem and moves as a result of swelling and shrinking at the base of the leaf (in an organ called the pulvini). Beyond its artistic inclinations, the plant is used frequently in Chinese medicine to treat rheumatism, malaria, and hepatitis, and its juicy extract is placed on wounds.

Dancing Grass was first introduced to the Western world in 1779, when Dutch physician Maarten Houttuyn gave it the name Hedysarum motorium. The plant became more notorious when in 1873, Charles Darwin wrote to Sir Joseph Hooker–the director of England’s Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew–describing the Telegraph Plant: “The little leaflets never go to sleep, and this seems to me very odd; they are at their games of play as late as 11 o’clock at night and probably later.” Darwin spent much of the next twenty years writing on the subject of the dancing plant, eventually printing his research in The Power of Movement in Plants, the last volume of his work published during his lifetime.

The Dancing Plant remains something of a botanic enigma despite the advances made by Indian physicist J.C. Bose during the first half of the 20th century and more recent experiments with the plant’s membranes. The exact patterns of oscillations have yet to be discovered, but Codariocalyx motorius remains an elusive, mysterious dance partner.

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