World of Wonder: Touch-Me-Nots -The Toast

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Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s World of Wonder column is published by The Butter every other Thursday; today’s post was postponed one day due to New Year’s. Previously: Comb Jelly 

Mucho mucho thanks to everyone for the warm welcome to my first entry in World of Wonder. I’m very excited to get you to think of warmth and green as the big bustle of the holiday season fades into a new and sparkly new year.

When I was a little girl, my parents used to take me to the Chicago Botanic Gardens. Of all the approximately 1.5 million plants they have on-site, the one that scared and delighted me the most was Mimosa pudica — The Touch-Me-Not plant.

Why all the fuss and euphoria over a plant? When you touch the leaves of this plant, they shudder and fold shut. The plant shimmies and moves like fingers. I still coo over the delightful pennation (the double leaf pattern feathering outward then inward from both sides of a single stem) and the spherical lavender-pink flowers that bloom only in summer, as if someone crossed a My Little Pony with a firework.

This particular plant movement is called “sleep movement,” and scientists have figured out that when the leaves are touched, potassium ions get released that cause a drop in plant cell pressure, causing the leaves to collapse as if ready for bed. This elegant movement protects the plant by toppling carpenter worms and spider mites to the ground just when they think they’ll get their bite on with these unique leaves.

It’s native to Central and South America but can be found in shady spots in Florida and as far north as Maryland. I’ve seen grow kits for them in hobby and craft stores, which my parents find amusing because where they grew up, it’s considered a lowly and common groundcover — most tropical places in south Asia and various Pacific islands pretty much think of it as a weed. It’s best as a whimsical houseplant and that’s it. Unless you find yourself cavorting with cobras —then it can be used as a neutralizer for cobra venom.

But woe to those in warmer climes here in the States who decide to plant it in the yard. You don’t want to mess with how fast it spreads and drops roots. Dozens of garden and landscape message boards are filled with urgent pleas to help them get rid of all traces of the spreading plant in their yards before it threatens to grow over their house pets and cover up their lawn furniture like a bad imitation of Miss Havisham’s garden.

My Indian father taught me its name was thottavaadi in Malayalam and my Filipino mother called it makahiya. Other names for the touch-me-not are: sensitive plant, shame plant, humble plant, tickle-me plant, and my favorite—sleeping grass. I call it a botanical marvel.

This past summer, I brought my own kids to the Buffalo Botanical Gardens and let them piano their fingers over the potted plant with those magical leaves I could recognize from yards away — before I was close enough to read the tiny typed label — just from my episodic memory of that little girl in a sundress and ponytail over thirty years ago.

Aimee Nezhukumatathil is the author of three books of poetry, most recently Lucky Fish. She is a professor of English and teaches poetry and environmental lit at a small college in Western New York. She is obsessed with peacocks, jellyfish, and school supplies. Follow her on Twitter: @aimeenez.

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