No, this isn’t what your dealer will generously sell you at half price. And it’s not your run of the mill millet, either, though it still takes its name from the Latin panicum, from panis, or bread. Many of the grasses in the panic genus are grown for grain or fodder, bread on the hoof.
But not this bad boy. Nope, some like it hot and hot springs panic grass likes it hotter than a red-assed bee in a jacuzzi with two hookers and a space heater.
That’s about 115 degrees Fahrenheit hot (or 46.5 Celsius) and sometimes even higher. The grass, which is less often known as Dichanthelium lanuginosum, grows in the geothermically heated soils of geyser basins throughout Yellowstone National Park. This perennial bunchgrass, whose leaves are clothed in fine soft hairs and whose little spikelets are self-pollinating (whoa!), lives clustered along the edges of hot springs.
Not only do the hot springs panic grass’ preferred ground temperatures spike at 140 degrees, with winter lows hovering around a tepid 95 degrees, but this hardy little plant also enjoys these conditions for weeks or months at a time.
But wait, you’re thinking, that’s ludicrous! Everyone knows that searing temperatures can off organisms by unfolding their little proteins, molding them into something that isn’t worth shit biologically. So what gives?
Well...some plants produce a little something called a heat-shock protein, which effectively stabilize other proteins, rendering them less susceptible to high temperatures. As it happens, when the soil gets hotter, hot springs panic grass gives standard biological thinking the old fuck you and manufactures larger concentrations of small heat-shock proteins (sHSPs) in its roots. Other sorts of these proteins are known to protect plants in the short term, but it would appear that sHSPs are mucho importante in helping Dichanthelium lanuginosum keep on keepin’ on.
But everyone needs a friend, especially when they’ve established their home in one of mother nature’s frying pans, and this brand of panic grass is no exception. It has found a bosom buddy in the form of a stringy, clingy, microscopic fungus that lives between the plants cells. Yes, there is a fungus among us and it’s called curvaluria, but this sort of happy handshake is nothing new in the world of flora. Plant-fungal partnerships are older than Jesus, with a possible born on date of 500 million years ago or more when plants were just becoming plants. Fungi on the roots helps plants absorb water and nutrients and in return, the industrious fungi get a place to live and access to food and water. Science minded types like to call this mutualism.
But in the case of the hot spot loving hot springs panic grass and its hanger-on curvaluria, the situation is a classic case of symbiosis. The fungus toughens up the plant’s roots, imparting a higher degree of thermotolerance than would be possible for the plant alone, and for its troubles, it receives protection from heat within the roots it calls home. This is unusual and may be the first case of heat tolerance conferred by a fungus that has ever been discovered.
This perfect marriage of grass and shroom may be working in a number of different ways. The curvaluria might be helping the grasses dissipate heat via pigment, such as melanin (can you dig it?), or it could be acting as a fast finger on a biological trigger - telling the plant to activate dormant heat-shock genes. No one knows! Until about 98 degrees Fahrenheit, these two heat seekers can live well without each other. The key to finding out how the symbiosis works is to find out what the hell happens when they shake hands in the first place. It’s all in the genes.
In case you’re wondering what the point is of all this, hot headed plants and symbiotic spores, think of farmers’ fields ravaged by hot, dry summers. Think sci-fi! But before you start thinking that in the year 2000 we’ll all be harvesting wheat from our own personal flying volcano cars, think again. While seemingly indestructable, Dichanthelium lanuginosum is listed as endangered under the California Endangered Species Act. So don’t forget to pour some on the curb for our new friend hot springs panic grass.