So-called “resurrection plants” are well known for their ability to look completely dead and decayed, only to come back to life and restart photosynthesis after some drops of water are added. Most are found in tropical or subtropical climate zones, but some very few species live in mountainous areas of Asia and Europe, where they can even survive freezing.
Beatriz Fernández-Marín from the University of Basque Country in Spain led a research group looking to find out how the resurrection plant Ramonda myconi, also known as Pyrenean violet, survives in its naturally cold habitat. This plant (and many of its relatives) will sound familiar to anyone who’s seen the hit Korean zombie series Kingdom (I won’t go into details so as not to spoil it for those who haven’t seen it). Suffice to say that even though Ramonda myconi isn’t the key to turning people into zombies like the plant in the show, its abilities are nevertheless astounding.
Fernández-Marín found that while most resurrection plants accumulate sugars as a response to extremely dry conditions, Ramonda myconi uses antioxidant compounds to drive secondary metabolic reactions. The sugars are used instead to help the plant survive in low temperatures; they protect against osmotic stress and help stabilize cellular membranes.
What’s intriguing about the Pyrenean violet is how long-lived it is. The average life span seems to lay between 200 and 250 years! The plant belongs to the tropical and subtropical family Gesneriaceae, which thrived in Europe during the warmer periods of the Cenozoic era (the last 66 million years), and later adapted to its current colder climate. Only a few other plant species have achieved this feat; in Asia they include the genus Boea.
When considering extremophilic organisms on our planet, most people think about microbes, and sometimes animals. Hardly anyone realizes that plants have astounding abilities as well. Some resurrection plants can lose 95 percent of their water content, then after rewatering be fully photosynthetically active within 24 hours. Interestingly, it happens with very little or no tissue damage. And the period of near death can last for quite a long time—the species Craterostigma can go without water for at least two years.
Thus, while these plants can’t bring people back from the dead, they do bring themselves back from the brink—another amazing trick from the biological world.