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Desert plant plucks water from thin air

The arid Negev Desert in southern Israel is no match for the desert rhubarb, which plant researchers say has found a unique way to water itself.

The plant (Rumex hymenosepalus) has mastered collecting moisture in a region that receives just two to six inches [50.8 to 152.4 millimeters] of rainfall a year. According to Simcha Lev-Yadun, an author of the study published in Naturwissenschaften, the plant captures water from rains so light they don’t even wet the soil.

The plant does it with large round leaves and a long vertical root, odd adaptations for desert plants. More often desert flora has small leaves--think cactus--to minimize water loss, and two types of roots to maximize water capture.

The researchers describe the large leaf surface of the desert rhubarb as a lot like the mountainous habitat where the plant grows. Major leaf veins are located at the base—or valley--of the leaf.  The area between the veins is ridged, like a mountain and covered with a waxy cuticle that funnels water quickly downward within reach of the root.

The drainage system creates a “mini oasis” about three square feet [one square meter] for the desert rhubarb.

In the future, the group plans to investigate the cellular composition of the plants' uniquely ridged leaves.

Image caption:  Researchers from the University of Haifa-Oranim have managed to decipher the unique self-watering mechanism of this plant in the Negev desert, which harvests 16 times more water than other plants in the region. Image courtesy of Prof. Gidi Ne'eman, University of Haifa

 

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