Of all the approximately 1.5 million plants the Chicago Botanic Garden has on site, the one that scared and delighted me the most when I was a child was Mimosa pudica—the touch-me-not plant. (Or, depending on your preference: sensitive plant, shame plant, humble plant, tickle-me plant, and my favorite, sleeping grass.) In Malayalam, my father’s language, it’s called thottavadi, which—if you are a wily second grader—is an especially fun name to call a shy goldfish or an orphaned bunny you find after school one day, or to simply scream out loud while riding a bike in the suburbs. Why all the fuss and euphoria over some greenery? Well, I still coo over its delightful pinnation, the double-leaf pattern feathering outward then inward from both sides of a single stem, and its spherical lavender-pink flowers, which bloom only in summer, and look as if someone crossed a My Little Pony doll with a tiny firework. But its best and most notable feature is that when you piano your fingers over the leaves of this plant, they give a shudder and a shake and quickly fold shut, like someone doesn’t want to spill a secret.
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Scientists have learned that when the plant’s leaves are touched, potassium ions are released, causing a significant drop in cell pressure and leading the leaves to collapse as if the plant were nodding off to sleep. This elegant movement, called thigmonasty, topples carpenter worms and spider mites to the ground just as they think they’ll be getting their bite on.
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The touch-me-not is native to Central and South America but can be found along roadsides in Florida and as far north as Maryland. I’ve seen expensive grow kits for them in hobby and craft stores, which my parents find amusing; in India and the northern Philippines, the plant is often considered a weed. Woe to those who decide to plant it in their yards. The touch-me-not is best considered a whimsical houseplant and that’s it, unless you find yourself somehow cavorting with cobras—it can be used as a neutralizer for venom. You don’t want to mess with how fast it spreads and drops roots. Dozens of garden and landscaping message boards are filled with urgent pleas for help to remove the plant before it covers up house pets and lawn furniture like a bad imitation of Miss Havisham’s garden from Great Expectations.
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How I wish I could fold inward and shut down and shake off predators with one touch. What a skill, what a thrill that could be: Touch me not on the dance floor, don’t you see my wedding ring? Touch me not in the subway; touch me not on the train, on a plane, in a cab or a limo. Touch me not in a funicular going up the side of a mountain, touch me not on the deck of a cruise ship, touch me not in the green room right before I go onstage, touch me not at the bar while I wait for my to-go order, touch me not at a faculty party, touch me not if you are a visiting writer, touch me not at the post office while I’m waiting to send a letter to my grandmother, let me and my children and everyone’s children decide who touches them and who touches them not, touch them not, touch them not.