In a famous short story, Rip Van Winkle falls asleep in colonial New York and wakes up 20 years later to discover that the American Revolution has changed everything. In a recent article published in Ecology Letters, we report that a surprisingly large number of wildflower species display a similar phenomenon called prolonged dormancy, in which individual plants remain alive in the soil for one or more years, before reappearing above ground just like Rip Van Winkle. Some plants have even been recorded to remain dormant for ten years or more.
A large proportion of the examples of dormancy are found in orchids. Orchids apparently survive underground for one or more years by obtaining nutrients from soil fungi.
These observations of dormancy are made during long-term studies of plant populations in which researchers monitor tagged and mapped individual plants. The results can inform conservation managers, who typically aim to protect rare plants and their habitats. Dormant plants represent special challenges to land managers if they are not seen for many years.
The ability of some plants to successfully enter and emerge from dormancy may give them an advantage in surviving periods when there are harmful conditions, such as drought or large numbers of herbivores. This seems to be a bet-hedging strategy in which the disadvantage of missing a growing season by remaining dormant is less than the disadvantage of emerging from the ground in an unfavorably year. Our study demonstrates that wildflowers, just like Rip Van Winkle, sometimes need a good long sleep.
This article has also been widely reported on in the popular press. For example, here is an article in NexusMedia.