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Desert plant plucks water from thin air


The arid Negev Desert in southern Israel is no match for the desert rhubarb, which plant researchers say has found a unique way to water itself.

The plant (Rumex hymenosepalus) has mastered collecting moisture in a region that receives just two to six inches [50.8 to 152.4 millimeters] of rainfall a year. According to Simcha Lev-Yadun, an author of the study published in Naturwissenschaften, the plant captures water from rains so light they don’t even wet the soil.

The plant does it with large round leaves and a long vertical root, odd adaptations for desert plants. More often desert flora has small leaves--think cactus--to minimize water loss, and two types of roots to maximize water capture.

The researchers describe the large leaf surface of the desert rhubarb as a lot like the mountainous habitat where the plant grows. Major leaf veins are located at the base—or valley--of the leaf.  The area between the veins is ridged, like a mountain and covered with a waxy cuticle that funnels water quickly downward within reach of the root.

The drainage system creates a “mini oasis” about three square feet [one square meter] for the desert rhubarb.

In the future, the group plans to investigate the cellular composition of the plants' uniquely ridged leaves.

Image caption:  Researchers from the University of Haifa-Oranim have managed to decipher the unique self-watering mechanism of this plant in the Negev desert, which harvests 16 times more water than other plants in the region. Image courtesy of Prof. Gidi Ne'eman, University of Haifa


The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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