Fasciation

Summer, 2019, we were enjoying a vacation in the beautiful Ottsjö, a village in the Jämtland county of Sweden. Our cabin lies on the top of a hill, overseeing the lake Ottsjön and behind it the majestic mountain Ottfjället. Having the mountain by its side, the lake seemed calm and content; hiking by the lake, we were also intoxicated by the sense of ease and serenity. The quiet walk was interrupted however, by the sighting of an intriguing plant.

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While the plant itself is just a species of willowherb (Chamaenerion angustifolium), commonly found in pastures and fields, this grotesque individual kept our gaze fixed. Look at it's flattened stem, the freakishly overgrown flowers and even more numerous buds! What happened? What's the name of the condition? Eventually though, the spark of curiosity succumbed to our millennial attention span, and I didn't give it much thoughts after the trip. It was only until one and a half years later did I stumble upon the name of this phenomenon, fasciation.

According to White, 1945, fasciation is a catch-all term that describes abnormal growth in plants, it's not surprising then, that an array of factors can trigger such a condition, among which are hormonal imbalance, bacteria & fungi infections, chemical exposure and genetic mutations. It has been widely observed in vascular plants including the ones most familiar to us, such as strawberry, potato, peas and tomatoes. Fasciation can also show up on different parts of the same plant: in roots, leaves and flowers. One observation on fasciated Cuban tobaccos, compared with normal individuals, had up to seven times more leaves and similarly larger variations in the number of stamens, sepals and other floral parts.

Is fasciation plant cancer? Well, as White pointed out they indeed share many similarities: both are umbrella terms that covers a range of phenomenons; both can be triggered by a combination of environmental, physiological and genetic cues and both cause abnormal growth in various tissues. However, it may be hard to deem them as harmful as tumors to animals. In fact, in the eyes of us humans, they can even be extremely valuable. Fasciated cactus with their peculiar forms can be highly desired among collectors. Ancestors to our modern tomato and maize, ones with bigger fruits and grains first noticed by keen-eyed early farmers, owe their desirable traits greatly to fasciation mutations. It was even said that once in the garden of a rich man in South India, a fasciated pumpkin vine grew so lush and intertwined, it drew worship from pious Hindus believing it was King Cobra or "Naga" reincarnated.

Comparing to these stories, the brief awes from some random tourists in a Swedish village was very much inconsequential, yet I'm always happy to be reminded about nature's endless offering of pleasant surprises. Just go out and look.

. White, Orland E. “THE BIOLOGY OF FASCIATION.” Journal of Heredity 36, no. 1 (January 1945): 11–22. https://doi.org/10.1093/oxfordjournals.jhered.a105409.
. White, Orland E. “FASCIATION.” The Botanical Review XIV, no. 6 (June 1948): 319–358. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF02861723