Fast-moving plants like the Venus flytrap have mystified observers for ages. How can something without bones, muscles, or even a central nervous system move so quickly? The answer is surprisingly complex. Unlike people, plants come in a variety of species that all have different mechanisms of movement. 

Sensitive plants, Venus flytraps and sundews are seismonastic, meaning touch or vibration triggers a reaction. When something stimulates the fine hairs of a Venus flytrap or sundew, a modified leaf structure snaps shut, capturing the prey. Although they aren’t carnivorous, sensitive plants have leaves that visibly fold when touched. Researchers believe this may be a defense mechanism to deter hungry herbivores.

Balsam impatiens (Impatiens balsamina) is a unique plant with an explosive seed dispersal method. When touched, the seed pod violently bursts, spewing seeds in all directions. 

Heliotropism is a slower type of plant movement closely linked to sunlight. Plants with this ability, including sunflowers, beans, cotton, marigolds, daisies, buttercups, poppies and alfalfa, follow the sun over a day or season. Some plants may even change their movement over their life span.

For example, young sunflowers follow the sun’s path until maturity, when they permanently turn east toward the rising sun. Scientists believe this may be an adaptation to attract more pollinators. Studies show that east-facing plants tend to attract more insects, increasing the plants’ reproductive success.

Beans, peas and clover are nyctinastic, meaning they open during the day and close at night. Unlike tropism, nyctinasty is a biological event based on the plant’s circadian rhythm. Specialized cells in the plant detect light and temperature. In the absence of light, the blooms of nyctinastic plants close. 

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