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Plants grow points for protection
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Plants grow points for protection

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Thorns of a dilemma

Some plants have sharp, pointy growths to protect themselves. While we may think of all of them as thorns, scientists describe them each differently.

For example, plants like hawthorn trees have thorns — which makes sense since the word “thorn” is in the tree’s name. Hawthorn trees are also called quickthorn, whitethorn and thornapple. No matter what name you call them, there is no getting around the fact that the trees grow thorns up to about 1-inch long.

Orange trees also have thorns, and the honey locust tree can grow thorns a foot long. 

Prickles are what you find on raspberry, blackberry and rose bushes. They are much smaller than thorns, closer in size to a hair on your arm, and not as strong. They are still sharp, though. Rose bushes will have lots of little prickles growing from the skin of their branches.

Another spiky plant protector is the spine. Spines are found on plants like cactus where they also act as leaves.

All of these pointy growths are a way for some plants to protect themselves from animals that may want to eat them, or their seed-producing fruit.

A Yale University scientist has figured out how orange trees grow thorns. By changing the plant’s cell activity, the orange tree grew branches instead of thorns.

“The insight could lead to orchards of orange trees with more fruit-bearing branches — ones that pose less danger to laborers who pick the fruit,” said Vivian Irish, the Yale researcher.

It’s interesting that some of the sharpest plants also produce some of the prettiest, fragrant flowers and tastiest fruit. You just have to get past the spikes to enjoy them.

— Brett French, french@billingsgazette.com

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