Survival through Adaptation

Water is Life

Life with Lots of Water

Expand image tropical garden with many dark green plants. running water falls off a rock.

Tropical Garden at The Huntington

Questions & Prompts

  • Dive into the photograph and imagine you are standing in the photograph. What do you see? What do you smell? What do you hear? What do you taste? What do you feel?

  • Plants need air, nutrients, sunlight, and water. Which of these can you identify in the photograph? Which can you not see?

  • What plant adaptations can you identify in these photographs?

  • What questions do you have?

In nature, the plants in this photo grow in different places all over the world. These plants grow in places that are thousands of miles away from each other, but the environments all have one thing in common: They all have a lot of water!

Adaptations to Moist, Shady Environments

Humans (and other animals) need water to survive, but too much water can put our lives in danger. We stay safe by drinking healthy amounts of water. Our bodies tell us when we have had enough water, and we then stop drinking. Just like animals, plants can die from taking in too much water. But unlike animals, plants do not get to choose when they get water!

Water falls on the soil by a plant, and the plant’s roots absorb the water. Too much water can cause the roots of a plant to rot, and can cause the plant to lose its nutrients. This means it is important for the plant to get rid of the water quickly. How do plants do this?

In moist, shady environments, plants have adaptations for surviving in very wet environments. These adaptations include:

Buttress Roots. Buttress roots grow partially above the earth and help the plant stay upright. In wet environments, the ground can move around a lot! To help the plant stay in one place and not fall over, large roots grow above the earth. Buttress roots are an adaptation that help the plant grow tall in wet soil. Research note! Botanists today are doing research to find out if the buttress roots have another function. Some botanists hypothesize that the buttress roots trap dead plants and animals so that as they decompose, the underground roots can absorb the nutrients.

Drip Tips and Vertical Leaves. Drip tips are pointed tips on the ends of leaves. Vertical leaves point toward the ground. In wet environments, it rains a lot. Water is heavy! If water piles up on a leaf, it can break the leaf! If water builds up on leaves, they can rot. Too much water can also help fungi and moss to grow on leaves. These fungi and mosses block out the sun. Drip tips and vertical leaves are adaptations that help the plant survive in environments with heavy rain.

Epiphytes. Most roots grow underground, but not all roots! Epiphytes are plants that grow entirely above ground! Their roots do not anchor the plant to the ground. Instead, they anchor the plant to another plant! These roots can absorb nutrients and water from the air and from other plants. Wet environments have nutrient-poor soil, so it can be hard for plants to get the nutrients they need from the ground. Epiphytism is an adaptation that helps the plant survive in environments with limited nutrients available in the soil.

Stilt Roots. Stilt roots grow partially above the ground and help the plant stay in one place. In wet environments, the ground can move around a lot! To help the plant stay in one place and not fall over, stilt roots grow outward at an angle. Stilt roots are an adaptation that help the plant grow tall in wet soil.

Patterned Leaves. Animals need water and nutrients to stay alive. Plants are a great source of water and nutrients for animals, but plants need the water and nutrients too! Leaves that are colorful or have patterned margins can confuse animals. The animals have trouble figuring out where the leaf is! Patterned leaves are an adaptation to protect the plant from hungry animals.

Large room full of dark green plants. The room has a domed glass ceiling.

Growing in a Garden

At The Huntington, gardeners grow these plants in the Jungle Garden and in the Conservatory. Conservatories are special rooms or buildings for growing plants. Gardeners keep these places very wet with sprinklers. The conservatory is inside. This means the water cannot evaporate and it creates a humid environment. Humidity is the water that is in the air.

Octavia E. Butler stands in front of a large tree trunk. Green plants surround her.

Creative connection!

Octavia E. Butler was a science fiction writer from Southern California. She took a trip to the Amazon Rainforest to do research for a book she was writing. Octavia encountered many plants like those we grow in The Huntington’s Jungle Garden and Conservatory. These plants inspired her storytelling, and she used details about the plants to make her writing more realistic and interesting! Can you write a story inspired by the plants you’ve seen? How could you include research on the plants in a story?

Explore rainforest conservation!

Over the past few decades, people have destroyed large parts of the world’s rainforests. Conservation efforts are efforts to save and restore these habitats. Learn more:

Plant Spotlights