How often do you stop and stare at the roses (we’re staring now, not smelling)? Plants are interesting and amazing, but are also so common that no one probably notices their alien-esque qualities. We’re going to let you in on a little secret—plants are secretly doing math right under our noses (nerds). 

Plants Know Math

When noticing a daisy or maple tree or a dandelion growing between the cracks in a sidewalk, you might not think much about how these plants grow. The arrangement of their leaves, the curl of their stalks or branches seem mundane and, uh, boring. However, plants are out here being secret mathematicians, executing incredibly complicated patterns for leaf, seed, and petal arrangement.

OK, so maybe they aren’t pulling out calculators when our backs are turned, but pretty much all plants have an innate, natural ability to follow specific, planned patterns of growth. These patterns are so strict and consistent they can be predicted with math equations. Some plants even use the Fibonacci Sequence, which is probably the most well-known example of a pattern existing and repeating itself all throughout the natural world.

When The Calculations Go Wrong

But not all plants use the same equations. There are numerous growing designs and styles, all of which vary depending on growth hormones (yes, even plants deal with hormones) and the spacing of already existing leaves (plants are excellent at setting personal space boundaries). 

Sometimes though, plants mess up—their calculations go off the deep end and something…happens. When plants “do math wrong,” and don’t quite get their cells lined up like they should, they end up looking real weird. This issue is known as fasciation.

“Fasciation is a form of abnormal growth in plants,” says Rosie Leary, a horticulturist and botanical data specialist at Candide Gardening. Cells in fasciated plants end up growing perpendicularly, “creating flattened stems, elongated, deformed flowers and often elaborately contorted plant tissue as the cells don’t have the space they should to grow and develop normally.”

Drawing of non-fasciated and fasciated flowe
Drawing of non-fasciated and fasciated flower by Petra Jacob https://tentativeplantscientist.wordpress.com/2014/08/11/fasciation/

Fasciation, also known as crested, cristate or monstrose, disrupts the normal pattern of growth, leaving some plants looking like they took a brief stroll through a nuclear plant. Sometimes environmental factors, like exposure to chemicals (sorry about that whole nuclear plant joke), or damage from animals or frost can lead to fasciation deformations. “Plant hormones imbalances, genetic abnormalities such as mutations, or fungal or viral infections” can also cause fasciation, says Leary. 

The Pros And Cons Of Fasciation

Such alterations to growth aren’t typically a positive thing, even though they might look cool. “Deformed growth is not ideal, fasciated plants will often not survive as well compared to non-fasciated plants,” says Leary. Though, in some plants, it’s actually become a coveted quality, specifically in succulents. 

“There are now many plants that have been specifically bred to produce fasciation,” says Leary. “An example of this is the succulent Echeveria pulvinata ‘Frosty’, it produces a thick stem with a flattened head of succulent foliage as opposed to the typical rosettes commonly seen in Echeveria plants.” 

The next time you’re frolicking through a field or walking to the bus stop, take a moment to check out the surrounding foliage. You might just see something fascinating.