What is a marcescente plant?

The marcescent forest is a very curious type of ecosystem

Image – Wikimedia / Vicente Miguel Llop Molés

By fall, deciduous forests tend to run out of leaves. Low temperatures force them to go to rest, since otherwise they could not survive. Nevertheless, there is a type of plant that, despite being considered deciduous, has a characteristic that makes some landscapes look, well, different.

It is what is known as marcescente, and we not only find it in the forests, but they can actually grow in any region where there is spring, summer, autumn and winter, and the four seasons are differentiated from each other.

What are the characteristics of the marcescente plant?

Hornbeam is a marcescent plant

The hornbeam is a marcescent plant

In a deciduous plant, let’s say common, the arrival of autumn marks the beginning of the end of the food supply of the leaves. In other words, as the weather cools and the first frosts begin to register, the tree or shrub will run out of foliage, which may change color (from green to yellow, orange or reddish, depending on the species) as it runs out of nutrients.

Once it is completely dry, that is, once it is brown and the petiole (the stem that connects it to the branch) also loses life, the wind will take care of dropping it to the ground. If the area is not cleaned (something that by the way we DO NOT recommend doing it for what we are going to comment on now), in spring the plant will be able to recover part of the nutrients that it used to produce those leaves.

But this is, as we say, what happens in a common deciduous species, like those of the genus Acer (maples) for example. But this is not the case in all cases.

There is a type of plant, the marcescente, that with the cold, yes, stops supplying nutrients to the leaves, but when they dry, they remain on the branchesusually until new ones come out as soon as the weather improves. This is so because the petiole remains alive, or at least long enough so that the tree or shrub does not run out of foliage.

From our point of view, it is not usually visually pretty. And it is logical, especially if we are dedicated to growing plants. A dry leaf tends to be synonymous with problems, or the death of that crop. But the marcescente shows us that it can be beautiful, as well as useful.

Benefits of marcescent plants

Is there any benefit in keeping leaves dry during the winter? Anyone might think that it is a useless waste of energy, as well as a waste of time because, the longer they take to fall, the longer it will take for the plant to have the nutrients that will be released as soon as they decompose.

But again, the plant kingdom surprises us.

As we know, there are many animals that are herbivores, and of them, there are many others that feed on the branches, such as deer or elk. Because, By keeping these leaves, which are also dry and therefore less palatable as they have an unpleasant taste, they are protected. But there is still more.

There are marcescent herbaceous plantsThere are marcescent herbaceous plants

Image – Flickr / David Hernandez (aka davidhdz)

In mountainous regions of the tropics, to be more specific in high altitude areas, there are some species that use their leaves to protect themselves from the coldLike Spelling of the school. This is a herbaceous plant that grows wild in the Andes of Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela, at a maximum altitude of 4300 meters above sea level.

During spring and summer it grows without problems, but when winter comes it stops growing. The dry leaves of other years are kept, protecting the stem. In this way, it can sprout without much effort when conditions improve.

The Senecio keniodendron it is another species that we could consider marcescente. It is endemic to Mount Kenya, where it grows between 3900 and 4500 meters above sea level. During the day it is so hot that temperatures can exceed 40ºC; not in vain, they are close to the equator, but in winter those temperatures plummet and can drop to -30ºC. To survive, what it does is keep the leaves dry as long as possible, in order to protect the trunk.; and in addition, the rosette of green leaves closes at night, keeping the growth guide safe.

More types of marcescent plants

We have talked about some species, but … do we have any in Europe and / or America that is marcescent? Actually, not just one, but rather several. For instance, all carpinus (hornbeam), Quercus (oaks), and Fagus (the genus of beech) are. They make our forests look brown in winter. Then, green leaves come out, taking the place of those that are dry.

These three are genera characterized by being large trees, with dense crowns. It is common for them to exceed 20 meters in height, and their growth rate is rather slow. They are widely used in gardens as long as the climate is temperate and there is frost. Likewise, they need soils with an acidic pH, rich in organic matter, deep and with good drainage.

What do you think of the marcescente plant? Have you heard of that term?

What is a marcescente plant?

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