Pop Quiz: What’s invisible, odorless, an unlimited natural resource, and sometimes taken for granted…even cursed upon? Here is a clue: We are now using this renewable resource to produce about 4 percent of our electricity needs in the U.S., and that number is rapidly growing. If you guessed the wind, you’re correct! The almighty wind, a constant and reliable key to our planet’s ecosystem, is so common and present we tend to not even think about it. Now that we are starting to realize its potential, it might be a good idea to look closer at how plants have learned to live with and use it and perhaps learn a thing or two.
Using the wind to disperse seeds is one of the ingenious tactics plants have developed as a survival skill. Lightweight, propeller and parachute-like material attached to seeds represent the most notable and clever use of the wind. Still, there are many other ways. Your idea of the desert may be one of tumbleweeds rolling across the barren, desolate landscape; because deserts tend to be windy, tumbleweed plants have figured out that their best chance of continuing on is to have their seeds dispersed as far and wide as they can. They do this by growing into the shape of a shrubby ball and dying shortly after they set seed. The consistent wind then blows the tumbleweed across the desert, rolling and bouncing, causing its seeds to spread along the way. Using this method, tumbleweeds have figured out the best solution to their problem. Then again, they have had countless years to perfect it!
Another area to look at, and probably more applicable to biomimicry, is how plants protect themselves from the damaging power of wind. Many trees in windy areas have leaves that are thin and narrow, thus reducing the surface area and potential force of strong gales. Palm trees, on the other hand, have developed creative ways to live in harmony with the wind, the most common being in the tissue structure of the petioles (the stems). Here, the petioles are constructed into a crisscrossing mesh of fibrous material, creating a flexible and super-strong tether for the palm fronds and the trunk. What you get is a system that can move and adjust effortlessly as the wind dictates. A possible bio-inspired design could have similarly designed materials for the posts of giant billboards, awnings, or other large stand-alone structures. This could lead to less destruction and death caused by flying debris during hurricanes.
Bonus question time: Where are you most likely to find answers, solutions, and inspiration for many of our current, everyday challenges? Hint: It’s all around us. If you guessed the natural world, you are right, and you, too, are bioinspired!
Seth Menser is a senior horticulturist at the San Diego Zoo. Read his previous post, Seeds Make the World Go Round.