Plant Leaf Patterns Hold Mathematical Secrets

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The spiral pattern of an Aloe polyphylla plant at the University of California Botanical Garden. (Stan Shebs via Wikicommons under CC BY-SA 3.0)

Decoding the Mathematical Secrets of Plants’ Stunning Leaf Patterns

By Maddie Burakoff Smithsonian.com

To the untrained eye, plants may appear to grow rather impulsively, popping out leaves at random to create one big green jumble. Take a closer look, though, and you’ll find that a few curiously regular patterns pop up all over the natural world, from the balanced symmetry of bamboo shoots to the mesmerizing spirals of succulents.

In fact, these patterns are consistent enough that cold, hard math can predict organic growth fairly well. One assumption that has been central to the study of phyllotaxis, or leaf patterns, is that leaves protect their personal space. Based on the idea that already existing leaves have an inhibitory influence on new ones, giving off a signal to prevent others from growing nearby, scientists have created models that can successfully recreate many of nature’s common designs. The ever-fascinating Fibonacci spiral, for example, shows up in everything from sunflower seed arrangements to nautilus shells to pine cones. The current consensus is that the movements of the growth hormone auxin and the proteins that transport it throughout a plant are responsible for such patterns.

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3 COMMENTS

  1. If the cause is growth hormones and proteins, then we would expect the patterns to be isolated in systems with those characteristics. But, the patterns exist in all basic structures of reality including time itself.
    In fact, the geometry of the Aloe in the picture, best represents the true shape of the periodic table if portrayed using only primordial elements.

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