Zombie Plants!

Words by
Lucy Munro
| April 9, 2019

The year is 2019. On Planet Earth, not all is as it seems. The human race goes about their daily lives, distracted by appointments, social media profiles and what to eat for breakfast, most unaware of the manifestation of supernatural activity that grows amongst them. Meanwhile, zombie plants of every strain re-sprout from the earth, resurrected from the dead by a cocktail of mysterious weather events, scientific experiments and chemical catalysts.

We’ve all heard of prehistoric plants, the kind that flourished when dinosaurs and giant megafauna roamed the planet. After the effects of the most recent Ice Age, somewhere between 2 million and 11,000 years ago, many of these species and their dinosaur companions disappeared from the face of the earth. For those that remained, the impacts of human settlement over the last few centuries have created an environment that for many, is incompatible with survivability. Land clearing, the destruction of habitats and the widespread introduction of industrial agricultural techniques have led to a decrease in plant populations and the extinction of many species. But it doesn’t stop there. Today, in the era of the Anthropocene, an increasingly warmer climate with more frequently occurring extreme weather events puts our remaining plant life at further risk of extinction. Now, how’s that for a trifecta of bad plant luck?

What’s that you say my friend? What’s dead is surely gone? Well I’m here to tell you that you are most certainly wrong!

A growing number of zombie plants have re-emerged from the past, their ancient tendrils so firmly fixed on the turning pages of the years that not even a swipe of Valyrian steel could prise them off.”

Some have been resurrected from the ancient world into the modern day, as if a caveman wrapped them in a fur pelt and stuffed them into the backseat of Doc Brown’s DeLorean. Others have undergone strange experiments, been exposed to radioactive elements, gamma rays and atomic bombs. Exactly why have these plants returned? It isn’t always clear. Are they for good or for evil? Have they arrived with a prophetic message? There is at least one thing zombie plants can tell us for certain – what is lost, is never truly gone.

Silene stenophylla. Image from the National Academy of Sciences, sourced from the National Geographic.
Methuselah at Kibbutz Ketura, Israel. Image by Dr Elaine Solowey.

Resurrection Plants
Over the centuries, historians and archaeologists have excavated sites and discovered remnants of ancient seeds. The tombs and sarcophagi of ancient Egyptians were packed with wheat seeds for the afterlife and the carbon remains of grains from the ruins of Pompeii reveal the diet of the perished township. But due to the very particular conditions required for seeds to remain dormant and healthy, it is extremely rare for such findings to be discovered intact or with the ability to germinate. In fact, it is so rare that there are only a handful of reported successful plant resurrections in history. Maybe because it’s like playing games with death?

Silene stenophylla – the 32,000-year-old zombie plant.
You know that movie, Ice Age, where the squirrel is always scurrying about trying to hide his nut? That’s a pretty accurate depiction of the behaviour of pre-Ice Age, Arctic ground squirrels it would seem, after a group of Russian scientists discovered an underground chamber of fruit and seed fossils buried by squirrels in the Siberian forest. The chamber, which ranges in depth from 20m – 40m, is filled with an enormous supply of more than 600,000 plant fruit and seed fossils that radio carbon dating revealed to be almost 32,000 years old. Using in-vitro tissue culture and clonal micro-propagation techniques, the scientists proceeded to resurrect an ancient flowering plant from the tissues of the remains – the Silene stenophylla. Also known as the narrow-leaved campion, the plant is a once-extinct species of the Caryophyllaceae family (the same as carnations, lychnis and baby’s breath) and was last believed to have grown during the most recent Ice Age of the Pleistocene Epoch. 36 plants were successfully raised from the placental tissues of the fossils, creating what are believed to be the most ancient, viable, multicellular, living organisms/freaky zombie plants in the world.

‘Methusellah’ Judean Date palm (Phoenix dactylifera) – the 2000-year-old-grandad-zombie plant.
A magnificent citadel fortified by King Herod the Great once stood on a clifftop in Masada, Israel, overlooking the Judean desert in one direction and the Dead Sea in another. During the Jewish-Roman wars in 73CE, the Romans attacked and held siege of the fortress for over a year. Rather than surrender, the Jewish subjects within the walls set fire to the citadel and committed a mass suicide.

In 1963, a group of archaeologists began a dig at the ghost ruins of Masada, unearthing from the remains an undisturbed and intact clay jar that held within a handful of seeds from the holy Judean date palm.”

The fruit of the plant was an integral part of the ancient Mediterranean diet, a common ingredient in tonics for laxatives, aphrodisiac and relaxants. The seeds found within the jar were carbon dated by scientists to be two-thousand-years-old.

Though an incredible finding for the archaeological team, the seeds remained in a drawer in Tel Aviv for forty years before Dr Elaine Solowey, an expert in desert agriculture, was given the task of germinating them. Soaking the seeds first in hot water to activate absorption and then in fertiliser and seaweed before planting, Solowey asked for the power of the heavens. In 2005, her wish was granted – one of the ghost seeds sprouted. She named the ancient male zombie date palm, Methuselah, after the father of Noah, the oldest man in the bible.

Methuselah now grows over three-metres-tall in Kibbutz Ketura, Israel, and has procreated with modern female date palms, giving birth to a new race of half zombie Judean date palm plants.”

In Jane Goodall’s 2013 book, Seeds of Hope, she wrote: “[W]ithin a 2,000-year-old seed, a germ of life was still alive, waiting, waiting, waiting for the right conditions to wake, like Rip Van Winkle, into a strange and different world.”

Other resurrected zombie plants of note:
– The sacred lotus or water lily, Nelumbo nucifera, which was recovered from a dry lakebed in north eastern China in 1995 and carbon dated to be 1300 years old.
Villa dei Misteri, a recreation of the wine drank by ancient Pompeiians before the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79CE, grown from the original vineyard sites in Campania.

Ginkgo biloba at Shukkeien garden after the atomic bomb in 1945. Image sourced from the Ginkgo Pages.
The great ginkgo tree at Anraku Ji Temple in Hiroshima 60 years on from the Atomic blast. Image sourced from Get Hiroshima.

Unnatural Disasters, Superheroes and Mutant Plants
Radioactive spiders? The paleo diet? X genes? Whatever the reason, these plants have the Gift.

Ginkgo biloba – The maidenhair tree/the superhero of the plant world.
If there were ever a plant worthy of becoming a superhero, it would be the gingko. It would wear a giant white and yellow cape and fly around with flowers in its hair, passing out hand-thrown Mother Teresa figurines and helping the elderly cross the road.

The atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 dropped enormous, radioactive fireballs over the cities of Japan, devastating everything in their path and killing over 200,000 people in the months that followed. Yet somehow, amongst the horror, death and destruction, 170 Ginkgo biloba trees survived.

Directly hit by the effects of the bomb, the trunks of the trees were charred black and the previously lush leaves were burned into nonexistence. But within the depths of the trunks, a cylinder of living cells remained.

In the spring that followed, the trees bloomed again – living natural memorials of the pain that had been endured across Japan.”

According to Sir Peter Crane, the director of Yale’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, the great paradox of the ginkgoes is that the species almost went extinct around two million years ago. Considered a dinosaur species in their own right, fossils of the ginkgo, which predate the Palaeolithic period, have been found across Laurasia (modern day Asia). But around the time of the Pleistocene Epoch, glacial effects killed almost ever strain of the species, leaving only a handful of remaining trees in the forests of central China. It is from these trees that every gingko alive today is descended.

Around the 1300s, a revived interest in the species in Japan led to the widespread planting of ginkgo trees across the country, and in 1923, they were to survive the second of their battles with natural disasters. An earthquake measuring 7.9 on the Richter scale hit the township of Kanto near Tokyo, sending the area into flames and levelling everything in its path. But amongst the destruction, the ginkgo trees remained. Though the outer parts of their trunks were burned black, the cells of life remained inside. This incredible rebirth from chaos led to a focus on planting more ginkgo trees across Japan, including in the future A-bomb affected city centres of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Arabidopsis spp.– the TNT test tube baby plant.
Scientists from the University of York have discovered a mutant plant closely related to the mustard family has the ability to soak up TNT (the explosive trinitrotoluene) contaminants from soils. Using methods of genetic modification, the mutant arabidopsis has been specifically created to lack the enzyme MDHAR6, the chemical responsible for recycling vitamin C through the plant cell structure. When planted into TNT affected soil, the plant thrives, soaking the elements of the contaminant into its roots and cleansing the soil in a process known as phytoremediation (WOW). Other examples of phytoremediation are alpine pennycress (lead), hemp (radioactive soils) and pigweed (uranium).

These super-mutant-plants might save the world! Clearing swathes of wastelands across the planet that have been contaminated by chemical pollutants, such as firing ranges and chemical waste spills.”

Other mutant plants of note:
– Chinese space breeding program. (That’s right, I said space breeding.) The Chinese government are currently launching seeds into outer space to observe whether a brush with extra terrestrial life causes genetic mutations.

Arabidopsis thaliana. Image sourced from Saxifraga.
The Doomsday Seed Gene Vault in the Svalbard Archipelago, Norway. Image sourced from Time Magazine.

Zombie zoos
Not all plants can flourish in the wild. But in the confines of human captivity…

The Global Seed Vault/the Doomsday Vault/the key to the zombie takeover.
If your dream is to take over the world and create a race of mutant plant zombies that answer to your every whim, this is the place you want to rob. On the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen in the Svalbard archipelago, the Global Seed Vault sits eerily, buried within the depths of a mountain. Affectionately known as the Doomsday Vault, the container holds the largest collection of agricultural diversity in the world – over 930,000 varieties of seeds and grains that span across 13,000 years of agricultural history.

The vault is just one of a number of seed banks that act as hard drives of the plant world, backing up existing or extinct plant life with duplicate seeds for the purposes of resurrection biology, de-extinction or in case of an apocalyptic event. Phew!”

The seeds within also contain essential DNA traits needed to develop new super-strains of species. The isolated location of the Svalbard Seed Vault was specifically chosen by humans to protect the remnants within. In other parts of the world, seed banks have been threatened, damaged or destroyed, such as the Aleppo vault, containing the oldest known varieties of wheat and barley, which was abandoned after the Syrian conflict of 2012, vaults in Afghanistan and Iraq which were both destroyed during civil war and the Philippines vault which was damaged after a large-scale flooding event.

Marsh Club Moss (Lycopodiella inundata).
An endangered habitat of marsh club moss in Dorset, UK has been revitalised after members of a local environmental group drove a five-tonne tractor over it. Evolving over 400 million years ago, the club moss has become increasingly endangered in the UK as its habitat has been cleared. Thriving in areas impacted by hard hoofed animals that break up the soil, the group, who are part of the Back from the Brink program, a plan to save twenty of Britain’s most endangered species, gambled that the scraping of the tractor would mimic the effects of heavy animal traffic. Their luck paid off – the 3000 plants quickly multiplied to over 12,000 plants soon after the area was disturbed. Club moss takeover!

Eau de Hibiscadelphus wilderianus – the scent of ghost flowers
Have you ever wondered what old, extinct flowers smell like? Wonder no more! A team of scientists at Ginkgo Bioworks, one of the world’s largest synthetic biology companies, have resurrected the fragrant genes of an extinct Hawaiian plant to create a perfume line. (Is this for real?)

The Hibiscadelphus wilderianus disappeared from the dry-land forests of Maui in 1901. But through the crafty science of synthetic biology and genome engineering, scientists are able to bottle up the smell of the once living species for you to carry around in your bag. Move on over Chanel No. 5!”

The complex process of creation is mind boggling. First, paleogenomics were used to piece together old fragments of the plant DNA from museum catalogues. This was then digitally assembled to find the genetic code of the fragrance molecules and a special printer converted the recovered sequence into ACTUAL DNA. Finally, yeast was added to release a fragrance that could be captured and added to perfumes. A total of eleven different blending combinations were created by the company to mimic what the scent of the flowers may have been, so you can pick and choose which zombie/ghost scent is more your signature!

Other zombie zoos or human influenced plants of note:
– The collection at the Mount Lofty Botanic Gardens in South Australia, which is home to a variety of not one, but two species extinct in the wild, Camellia amplexicaulis and Franklinia alatamaha.
– The Wollemi Pine. But you guys already knew that one.

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Hibiscadelphus wilderianus. Image sourced from the Scientific American.

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