Flickr Photo by Hafiz Issadeen
Easily able to join the line up in Barnum's circus freak show is the sensitive plant, but unlike the FeeJee mermaid and other hoaxes, this plant is for real. The Mimosa pudica is definitely a curiosity and is called the sensitive plant because of the way that it folds up its leaves and droops when it is disturbed in a shy and bashful way. Like the venus flytrap, the sensitive plant is one of the few plants capable of rapid plant movement when touched or in excessive heat or drafts, taking a couple minutes to half an hour to open back up. They also have a biological clock of sorts because they raise their leaves in the day and lower them at night. It is not known exactly why or how the sensitive plant evolved this trait but many believe that it was in response to predators and by shrinking down it has a better chance of defending itself. Some also believe that the quick movement is intended to dislodge harmful insects.
Besides its carnival like exhibitionism, it is also a beautiful plant in itself. It is native to South and Central America, but can be cultivated as a houseplant in temperate areas and outdoors in the tropics. If you are living in a tropical climate be forewarned that the sensitive plant can be a weedy invasive so plant it with care. Its fern like leaflets are quite graceful and they will bloom from mid spring to early autumn with clusters of pink/purple fluffy pom-pom looking flowers. Each flowering pom-pom is not actually a singular flower but a cluster of many individual ones. The sensitive plant likes warm temperatures and high humidity. Keep in a bathroom, use a humidity tray or have your mister handy to spritz occasionally. They like average room temperatures and kept free from draughts. Bright light with some low intensity direct sun and even soil moisture without being soggy. During the growing season you can fertilize the sensitive plant to reassure its rigor and bloom.
They have a tendancy to look unsightly when they get larger so it is wise to keep them in a small pot to control there size. When you do repot your sensitive plant use a well draining potting mix that is pea moss based--it might look a little droopy and unhappy when repotted but it will bouce back. So, if there is lull in conversation at your next cocktail party, or the children's birthday party is getting boring, go get the showman. The sensitive plant might not be the greatest show on earth but it will amaze and shock even the most cynical of guests.