Clone for Insurance

Wednesday, October 03, 2012
Why We Clone There’s a detail in the story of Adam and Eve that has always intrigued me. Shamed and evicted from Paradise, they must cover themselves. Every painting shows Adam with a fig leaf or two strategically placed. But since I could walk I had been picking figs and knew the itch that comes from touching the leaves! I always wondered what would possess Adam or his portrayers to choose figs. After years of propagating plants, I think I know the answer and it is one of the primary reasons humans learned to clone before they knew the word. We want more of a good thing! Fossil records and human diaries tell us that fig trees were among the first cultivated fruit plants. Indeed, there is evidence of an ancient tree in Palestine surrounded by a rock fence. No, I do not think this is Adam’s tree, but it does show that figs were prized and guarded from the outside world since ancient times. Here’s what might have happened: A native grove of figs would have had some that were tastier or more reliable than others. Then somebody noticed a branch lying on the ground by that tree had sprouted a new little tree and it was better, too. They learned to care for those layers and to make more, but what if they had to move on? Artistic interpretations aside, I like to think that Adam was clad in cuttings, not just leaves. Perhaps at the last moment he grabbed them not only to cover himself but also because he hoped for more yummy figs in his future. That desire for more of a particular plant, not just any member of the species, motivates vegetative reproduction, or cloning. How we do it often depends on the plant’s form and habit. Branches that can bend form layers, matted plants spread across the soil surface to increase their numbers, and those with underground rhizomes branch out and sprout. A case can be made that the plant is simply trying to survive, such as when stems grow oddly longer and become rooting stolons. These natural clones are genetic duplicates of their parent plant and remain connected to it until they can survive on their own and the connection between them withers. Whatever the reason it happens, humans observe natural clones and often dig them up to avoid overcrowding or to gain a plant for another site. But along the way, that question of distance and time spurred someone to take cuttings, nurture them, and propagate that desirable specimen. Thank goodness for human ingenuity! When a plant grows too large for your habitat, threatens to die, or is simply too valuable not to sell, a rooted cutting can carry its legacy forward. A clone offers insurance against an old plant’s rebellion against indoor conditions or one that has dropped all of its lower leaves or one that is so rare that its singular status is nerve racking. Through trial and error, people have learned that a wounded cutting sometimes roots faster, that some need to heal over to root at all, and that some root better if the bark is slipped off their stems. These lessons and the discovery of rooting hormones like Hormex makes our job easier today than Adam ever had it. Rooting cuttings takes more effort and costs more money than growing from seed, balanced by a higher success rate and the certainty of an exact duplicate plant. Although I cannot testify for Adam, a certain odd rush of excitement does come with liberating a cutting without permission. Like running a stoplight at 3 am at an unattended intersection, who’s to know? You may not get a traffic ticket, but karma dictates that stolen sprout may not root easily, either, so make two cuttings and cross your fingers. By taking one for the front and one for the rear, that’s probably what Adam did.
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