Gardening-Obedient and Sensitive

This July 15, 2013 photo shows a sensitive plant in New Paltz, New York. Sensitive plants are annuals that are easy and quick to grow from seed. The flowers, looking like small, pink bottlebrushes, are somewhat attractive. (AP Photo/Lee Reich)

There are two plants whose behavior makes me think back to when my daughter was a teenager.

Those years can be turbulent ones for kids and parents alike, and these plants might offer a lesson, a distraction — or at least a smile.

The first — obedience plant — models behavior that gardening parents might wish they saw more of. Obedience plant (Physostegia virginiana) gets its name for how well the flowers obey. Point the flower stalk in the desired direction — for example, all facing outwards in a vase — and they stay put. No muttering or eye-rolling.

Besides being a good listener, obedience plant is pretty. Its flowering wands rise 3 or 4 feet high, each closely studded along the top portion with tubular, lipped blossoms that are lavender pink with darker speckles. Some varieties have white or deep rose flowers, dwarf stature, or leaves that are speckled white and green. The plant makes a pleasing contrast in form to neighboring phloxes or tall asters in similar color shades.

Obedience plant is a hardy, native perennial eager to spread via running roots. It's not especially hard to discipline in its spread, though. New stems with attached roots readily come free if given a sharp yank when the soil is moist in spring or fall. And if you need more obedience, just poke these severed parts into new ground, where they quickly take hold. They're not finicky about soil but do like sun.

Parents, take note: My plant never obeyed — in fact, it snapped — until I learned not to bend the whole flower stalk at once, but to work with each flower individually.

The other plant is "sensitive plant" (Mimosa pudica), which gets its name from the way its leaflets rapidly collapse along their midribs at the slightest touch. The response travels through the plant in a wave of motion after one leaf is touched.

Sensitive plant is an annual that's easy and quick to grow from seed. The flowers, looking like small, pink bottlebrushes, are attractive. The plant itself, like a sensitive teenager, is awkwardly branching, hairy and prickly, but lovable and fun nonetheless.

What benefit does this "fainting" mechanism offer the sensitive plant? It could be a way to fend off predators: A hungry insect might be frightened away by the plant's rapid collapse, and a hungry mammal turned off at the unappetizing appearance of the apparently bare stems.

Either way, the plant wants to be left alone. Sound familiar, parents?

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