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Tiny Plant Bursts Open at Explosive Speeds

The bunchberry dogwood, a tiny shrub that grows in dense carpets in the fir and spruce forests of North America, is the fastest-moving plant ever discovered, researchers report in this week's issue of the journal Nature.

The plant bursts open in less than a millisecond, flinging its pollen grains with the force of a huge explosive -- at speeds about 800 times the force astronauts experience during take-off.

The plant's firing mechanism is similar in design to a medieval trebuchet catapult. As the petals of its tiny alabaster-white flower open, they trigger its stamens to shoot up and hurl pollen upwards and outwards. The whole process happens faster than the snap of a venus flytrap.

The researchers, from Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., speculate that the bunchberry, which only grows to a height of about 8 inches, may need the super-powered propulsion to maximize its chances of catching a breeze to carry its pollen to other plants far and wide.

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David Malakoff
Nicknamed "Scoop" in high school, David Malakoff joined NPR in December of 2004 as the technology and science correspondent for NPR’s science desk. His stories about how science and technology impact people’s daily lives can be heard on all NPR news programs.