The dancing plant

Darwin was obsessed by it, although even he never trained his weedy Asian shrub to twitch its leaves to the sound of music. But in a small town in northern Thailand ...

Topics: Charles Darwin, Thailand,

The dancing plant

Dr. Pradit Kampermpool marches through his plant nursery, past row upon row of exotic orchids, before stopping, his chest proudly puffed out, in front of an unremarkable, weedy-looking plant. This plant, he says gravely, cost him a fortune. He developed complicated breeding programs and followed them religiously for almost 10 years to produce it, he says. This plant, he says, is a dancing plant.

“It’s a dancing plant!”

He pauses for effect. Meanwhile, the sun comes up over the green fields. The pointed little leaves of Kampermpool’s dancing plant nod and bounce in the breeze. Somewhere, a bird warbles. Kampermpool is still waiting.

“This plant,” he says again slowly for emphasis, “is a dancing plant.”

Kampermpool stands maybe 5 and a half feet tall. He strides through the nursery, disappearing occasionally behind a screen of orchid stems to reappear seconds later on the other side, his green-and-white polka-dot shirt flashing between gaps in the swaying thicket.

It is almost 6:30 in the morning and we are standing in Kampermpool’s plant nursery in Udon Thani Province, in tropical northern Thailand. It is already hot and humid in the small and unremarkable town, which sits about 35 miles south of the Laos border surrounded by rice paddies and knots of thick jungle. A mile or so to the south of the nursery is downtown Udon Thani, which consists of brightly lit Kentucky Fried Chicken franchises, pizza joints and multiplex movie theaters. Another mile farther south, a small and crowded station links the town by train to Bangkok, about 10 bumpy hours southwest.

At night, elephant handlers — bent, little toothless mahouts — park their elephants implausibly under the store awnings downtown, to shelter from the rain that comes nightly. But this morning at his nursery, it is not yet 7 o’clock, the sun is still low in the sky, and Kampermpool, who is 65, has already been up for hours, singing softly to his dancing plant. It responds to music, he says proudly. “This is the third generation, my friend,” Kampermpool continues, pointing at the dancing plant again. “It’s a Desmodium gyrans. It’s the third generation, OK? Third crossing, OK? Self-pollinated, my friend, third time, third generation.”

The dancing plant grows unchecked in a secluded enclosure at the back of Kampermpool’s nursery, bursting from a brick trough filled with dark wet soil. Black netting hangs in folds overhead to block the sun’s harmful rays, and barbed wire prevents thieves from breaking in to the enclosure at night and stealing a prized sample of the plant. Surly workers kick halfheartedly at clumps of mud in the fields; bales of barbed wire bake in the sun. To the untrained eye, Kampermpool’s nursery looks more like a gulag.

Kampermpool doesn’t care. He cares only about his dancing plant. If a fire broke out tomorrow among the orchids, jumping steadily from trough to trough and advancing slowly, relentlessly, through the nursery, Dr. Pradit Kampermpool would think of only one thing: The Plant.

He would run selflessly through thick banks of smoke to raise the alarm, to build a firebreak with orchids, to take an emergency clipping of his dancing plant and store it in the damp safety of his mouth, to do something! … anything! … just to save it … save The Plant!

Share this observation with Kampermpool and he’ll take it as a veiled threat, stepping backward cautiously, narrowing his eyes, and asking, “What fire? Tomorrow? What do you mean, fire?” After that, he clams up. He’s sulking. The sun climbs higher. The fields get warmer. The pointed little leaves of his dancing plant — his Desmodium gyrans — nod and bounce in the breeze. The bird warbles again. He shrugs. “I spent seven years on this plant,” he explains sheepishly.

The Plant twitches.

Before Kampermpool could start breeding The Plant, he first had to find it. Ask him where it came from and he quickly gets coy, simultaneously jabbing a stubby little thumb at the green hills over his shoulder, pointing vaguely at some trees on the other side of the road, and nodding his head toward Laos in the north, all the while muttering quietly to himself.

When he was a young man, Kampermpool carefully states, considering every word to be sure of giving nothing away, the elders of the hill tribes scattered to the north would talk about a species of plant that danced. They used the dancing plants, he says, high in the mountains, in the jungle villages and the border towns, to make tea.

It was 1976. Kampermpool began to search for the plant. “I hired people to check for me,” he says. “I found one in Yunnan, in China, but the leaves are bigger; they have some near Kanchanaburi, near Burma, but nobody pays attention — it looks like a weed.”

And it does look like a weed. A couple of sprigs of Kampermpool’s plant would not look entirely out of place atop a salad. Neither would it attract attention sprouting from between two paving slabs. If a trusted friend told you it was bok choy, you would not question it.

Eventually, says Kampermpool, crouching suddenly behind a thick clump of orchids and hunching his shoulders, his hired workers found a dancing species growing deep in the jungle. Kampermpool shifts his weight to the balls of his feet, leans forward, and whispers from behind his hand. “Shhhhhhhh,” he says. He is no longer standing in his nursery with the morning sun slanting through the clouds: Dr. Pradit Kampermpool is back in the jungle.

“So I’m watching,” he whispers, parting imaginary foliage and squinting through the years, past the rows of orchids and the bales of barbed wire, to an imaginary clearing. “Hmmm…” he says softly. “Well, the leaves are similar.” He pauses for effect. “Then it moved a little bit!” he shouts, flinging his arms in the air and jumping backward.

It was 1991. The search for the dancing plant was over. It had taken 15 years. “This plant nearly disappeared from the world,” Kampermpool says, “so I dug it up.”

It is a simple statement. Kampermpool is not trying to be literal, but that is exactly what he did. He dug it up. He took a shovel deep into the jungle, dug up the plant, shook the dirt from its roots, brought it back here and carefully planted it in the trough filled with dark, wet soil that sits at the shady end of his nursery. It has remained there ever since, its roots probing the rich mulch that Kampermpool regularly shovels on and gently pats down. Finally, the complex breeding programs, the 24-hour nurturing — the watering, fertilizing, measuring, sampling, pruning, trimming — the crossbreeding, the biopsies, the singing, the coaxing, the watching, the constant monitoring, could begin. First he bred the plant, and then he bred it again — second generation, my friend, OK? — and then later still, he crossbred it with a Chinese species of gyrant to create a hybrid. Slowly, over the years, the plant became The Plant.

- – - – - – - – - – - -

On Oct. 31, 1873, Charles Darwin wrote to Sir Joseph Hooker, “Now I want to tell you, for my own pleasure, about the movements of Desmodium [gyrans] … The little leaflets never go to sleep, and this seems to me very odd; they are at their games of play as late as 11 o’clock at night and probably later.”

Darwin was the author of “The Origin of Species,” published in 1859. Hooker, his friend and confidant, was the director of England’s Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, a repository for thousands of plant species collected from all over the world. On June 10, 1850, Hooker collected a specimen from Sikkim, a northeast Indian state that sits snugly in the Himalayan foothills, with Nepal a few miles to the west, Bhutan to the east, and China stretching out to the north; on June 30, 1850, he collected another sample from Khasia, in Meghalaya state, southeast of Sikkim. Hooker sent the specimens back to Kew.

Darwin began studying Desmodium gyrans — or Hedysarum, as he sometimes called it — and the movements of its little leaflets as early as 1855, after borrowing one of Hooker’s specimens. “I do hope it is not very precious,” Darwin wrote, thanking Hooker for the loan, “for, as I told you, it is for probably a most foolish purpose. I read somewhere that no plant closes its leaves so promptly in darkness, and I want to cover it up daily for half an hour, and see if I can teach it to close by itself.” More than 20 years later, Darwin was still trying.

If the pointed little leaves of his borrowed specimen twitched to sounds as Kampermpool’s do, Darwin never noticed it, or if he did, he never mentioned it. And if he sang to his specimen as Kampermpool does, bending close and whispering into its bushy leaves, crooning softly, gently wheedling, cajoling, and coaxing it to move, he never mentioned that either.

“I am working away as hard as I can at all the multifarious kinds of movements of plants,” he wrote to German researcher Fritz Muller on July 24, 1878, “and am trying to reduce them to some simple rules, but whether I shall succeed I do not know.”

Characteristically, Darwin did succeed. Two years later, a book-length monograph titled “The Power of Movement in Plants” was published. It was the last book published during Darwin’s lifetime, representing more than two decades of research on moving plant species. During that time he performed round after round of experiments, measuring the movements of the leaves in all conditions, depriving the plants of light and nutrients, syringing water onto the leaves to simulate rainfall, subjecting them to extreme temperatures, and removing slices from the plants.

Darwin’s Desmodium gyrans specimen moved when he syringed water onto the leaves. As the water landed on its pointed little leaflets, it set the plant twitching, and Darwin measured the movements. He wrote again to Muller in April 1881, and concluded that the movements were designed “to shoot off the drops of water.”

“If you are caught in heavy rain,” he continued, “I should be very much obliged if you would keep this notion in your mind, and look to the position of such leaves.”

Still, Darwin was not finished with the plant. Long before it became The Plant — more than a century before it was discovered in the jungle and transported to Kampermpool’s nursery in Udon Thani — Desmodium gyrans had a hold over Darwin that was almost as strong as the one it now has over Kampermpool. On April 16, 1881, a year after the publication of “The Power of Movement in Plants,” Darwin dispatched a note to his friend Lord Avebury. The first line reads, “Will you be so kind as to send and lend me the Desmodium gyrans by the bearer who brings this note.”

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Once again, he was requesting a specimen; but Darwin never finished his research on Desmodium gyrans. He died a year later, on April 19, 1882. He was buried next to Sir Isaac Newton, beneath a flagstone in the north aisle of Westminster Abbey, and any theories he had secretly harbored about the plant were buried with him.

Kampermpool will eagerly tell you there’s an important difference between the plant Darwin studied more than a century ago and the specimen growing in the Udon Thani nursery.

“It’s a dancing plant!” he will predictably insist.

“This plant is a dancing plant!”

That, Kampermpool will proudly state, is the difference. It dances. Indisputably, Darwin’s plant moved and, Darwin believed, the movements shook water droplets from its leaves following a heavy rainfall. But Kampermpool’s plant — The Plant — responds to music — to music! — and Kampermpool has actively encouraged this behavior for more than a decade by selectively breeding and crossbreeding the young plants that respond most enthusiastically to his singing.

Darwin called the plant Hedysarum; modern botanists call it either Desmodium gyrans or, more correctly these days, Codariocalyx motorius; its common name is Telegraph plant or Semaphore plant — after the leaf movements, which resemble semaphore signals. Kampermpool — who is burying his face in his plant’s leaves again, disappearing almost up to his ears, and cooing softly to it — calls his plant Miss Udon Dancing Sunshine.

In fact, since it was first described by Dutch physician and naturalist Maarten Houttuyn — who named it Hedysarum motorium in 1779 — the plant has been called at various times, Hedysarum gyrans (1781), Desmodium gyrans (1825), Desmodium roylei (1834), Codariocalyx gyrans (1842), Pseudarthria gyrans (1844), Meibomia gyrans (1891), and Desmodium motorium (1938). Botanical taxonomy sometimes gets a bit cluttered, says Gwilym Lewis, the principal scientific officer at Kew. Lewis tries to make sense of it :”Although the plant was first recognized and described in 1779,” writes Lewis by e-mail, “it has been moved by subsequent authors into different genera, e.g., Desmodium motorium (Houtt) Merr. (where Merr. is an abbreviation for Merrill). This new combination made in 1938 is also based on Hedysarum motorium, or, put botanically, Hedysarum motorium is the ‘basionym’ of both Desmodium motorium and Codariocalyx motorius. OK so far?”

Not really. But despite the confusion, Lewis assures me they are all the same plant: a leguminous Asian shrub. According to the International Legume Database and Information Service, it is not hard to find and is widely distributed throughout Australia, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Jamaica, Laos, Malaysia, Martinique, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam. It can even be found on the Society Islands, a chain of islands dotted remotely in the South Pacific. In Mauritius, in the 19th century, it was cultivated intentionally.

But Codariocalyx motorius or Desmodium roylei or Meibomia gyrans, or whatever you choose to call it, does not dance. It twitches. Very early in the morning, as the rising sun burns the mist off the fields, provided the weather has not been too hot, too humid or too dry, as long as the soil conditions are favorable, and it is not too windy, the leaves of Kampermpool’s dancing plant respond to his singing by twitching. Otherwise, The Plant spends most of its time hidden by orchids and protected by netting and barbed wire, its pointed little leaves nodding and bouncing in the breeze.

It dances, says Kampermpool defensively. “According to our experiments,” he says, “when we are using electronics it doesn’t work well. It likes humans, it likes musical instruments, but they have to be played by humans, my friend. If you sing a song composed by the king, it’s dancing better. This is very strange.”

Put a question — any question — to Kampermpool and he will respond instead by talking about The Plant. Because of this, he is an enigma. He might have children but, then again, he might not; allegedly, he spent several years in Iraq, researching desert plants, but perhaps this is not the case. His doctorate degree might be honorary, or he might have earned it conventionally — we don’t know. It is possible — and Kampermpool certainly makes it sound as if he has — that he has met the King of Thailand, His Majesty Bhumibol Adulyadej. [Editor's Note: Two years after the original publication of this story, a representative of Dr. Pradit's contacted Salon to state that the doctor had never met the King of Thailand, nor did he intend to give the impression that he did so.] So it is not surprising that, when asked about The Plant and the mechanism that actually makes its little leaflets move, Kampermpool sighs and rolls his eyes, recalling instead the day he found The Plant under the cool canopy of the jungle. Then he gives an extemporaneous lecture on the years he has spent breeding and studying The Plant; or claims that more than 30,000 tourists visit the nursery each year to see The Plant, although none are present this morning; and talks about his plans to market The Plant globally — you will be our planner; you will have a position forever — and voices his concerns that dark operatives, who stalk the nursery at night, will seize control of The Plant.

- – - – - – - – - – - -

According to a 1998 study that appeared in the journal Chronobiology International, the plant’s movements are caused by the swelling and shrinking of motor cells in special organs buried deep within the leaves, called pulvini. Via the pulvini, protons are pumped into the lateral leaflets, which in turn causes the movement, in and out, of charged ions. “During the pump state,” the paper reports, “ions are taken up, causing water influx and swelling of the motor cells. Depolarization causes loss of ions and water efflux (the motor cells shrink).” In other words, as protons are pumped into the pulvini, ions enter too, bringing water with them; when the charged ions leave the pulvini passively, the water migrates from the pulvini too. The movement of water molecules causes the motor cells in the leaves to shrink or swell and, as the water enters and exits, the plant’s little leaflets twitch.

But there is little point sharing this information with Kampermpool. Almost certainly, he would show his derision by first elaborately making the sound of a soufflé collapsing — Pshummph! — and then refusing to comment any further.

Pshummph!

Charles Darwin?

Pshummph!

Pulvini?

Pshummph!

Kampermpool shrugs, stands back and sighs, and then points at the plant again. “I will ask my people to prepare tea for us, my friend,” he says, signaling to a man leaning on a hoe before marching off toward his house and officially ending the discussion.

“This is tea,” he says a few minutes later, raising a cup to his lips and slurping noisily. “It’s dancing tea, you know, my friend. Boil it in hot water and drink it,” he says. “We’re drinking every day!”

Kampermpool is sitting in the shade, taking dainty sips from his teacup, with his little finger cocked and carefully pointed at the white clouds that march across the sky above his house. “This is an excellent tea for antioxidants,” he says between sips. “In 15 minutes, your cheeks will become red. The next morning, my friend, you will feel very light.”

It smells a lot like marijuana.

“No,” shouts Kampermpool, slapping the table. “No marijuana!”

Maybe not, but studies performed in the 1960s suggest that the leaves and roots of Desmodium gyrans — and likely Miss Udon Dancing Sunshine — contain psychedelic compounds, like N,N-dimethyltryptamine.

N,N-dimethyltryptamine?

Pshummph!

- – - – - – - – - – - -

It is hot and humid year-round in Udon Thani. Walking through the town is like wading through warm water. Despite this, Kampermpool rushes round his nursery like a black-haired dynamo, absent-mindedly watering his wilting plants.

Most days, after he has finished tending to his plants, he will find a shady spot, make a pot of tea, and wait for the fields to get dark around him. He is a busy man; sometimes he teaches a class at the university. He keeps busy to escape the inescapable: that he is stuck. Finally, after all these years, Dr. Pradit Kampermpool is stuck with The Plant. He has spent a fortune researching, breeding and crossbreeding this weedy-looking plant whose pointed little leaves nod and bounce in the breeze. The decades of research have cost him more than his house is worth.

He loves The Plant. It represents a 25-year odyssey for Kampermpool; it has been his only constant in a sea of change. The Plant also provides an object lesson in what can happen to someone who invests everything in something that eventually turns out to be nothing. And now, after 15 years spent scouring the jungle for The Plant and then another 10 years of careful breeding, Kampermpool is finally stuck with it, stubbornly defending the indefensible assertion that it is, in actual fact, a dancing plant.

“It’s a dancing plant.”

He stands beside The Plant now, looking at it sadly. It has its roots in him; the same roots that he unhurriedly shook soil from, wrapped in a moist cloth, and carried back to the nursery all those years ago. Each year those roots have inched a little deeper into his life, probing silently, delving. A root can split a boulder in two in the same way, moving unnoticed and undetected through the strata. Dr. Pradit Kampermpool might be able to tell you that, but he’s walking to the shady end of his nursery with quick little steps, his shiny black hair bobbing among the orchid stems, swinging a watering can, and singing.

This story has been changed since it was originally published.

Christopher Kemp is a writer in Cincinnati.

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