How do plants ‘know’ when they’re growing in a biodiverse community? Good question. But it seems that they do; and they thrive on it.
New research out of Switzerland published in Nature looked at the differences in 12 grassland plants between plants that had been ‘trained’ to grow in monocultures and plants that had been grown in mixed, highly diverse groups over several generations. The monoculture habituated plants and the mixed plants were then planted in both mixed and monoculture meadows in Germany and studied over 8 years. The ones with a mixed background and mixed planting substantially outperformed the monoculture plants, developed more biomass, and were more productive.
Intriguingly, the plants from the mixed background also showed more differences in functional traits among the individual species, like leaf thickness, height, and reproductive output. The rapid development of these differences called ‘character displacement’ over only 8 years doesn’t fit with our general theory of plant evolution where changes are measured in geological time scales, not years. It seems that living among a diverse group of neighbours can drive evolutionary processes.
The researchers, from the University of Zurich, predict that breeding plants in mixtures could be a source of untapped yield improvement and disease resistance from biodiverse cropping, as opposed to current monoculture systems.
If only humans would follow the same principles, we might have a recipe for World Peace.