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Fasciated Coneflower. There are more than 100 plant species known to display fasciation.

Since becoming an Extension Agent, I find that almost all of my conversations begin or end with an inquiry into what is ailing a plant. I have even started receiving text messages from my family in other states looking to diagnose what is ailing their botanical buddies. It is so fundamental to what I do that there is no escaping it. When visiting with friends I will regularly point out problems with their plants in otherwise non-plant conversation. I even catch problems with trees and turf while speeding down the road playing some plant pathology version of the license plate game. The range of causal agents is wide — from chemical imbalances in soil nutrients and pH, to microscopic viruses, bacteria and fungi — up to insects and mammals.

One plant abnormality that does not fit into one of these disease- or pest-related categories is a phenomenon called “fasciation.” Note the spelling here: we’re talking fas-ci-a-tion, not fas-ci-na-tion. Fasciation will give the plant stem or flower stalk a somewhat flattened and splayed appearance sometimes resulting in two or more sections. As varied as plants are, they are more or less built on the same plan. The main growing point, called the apical meristem, is full of undifferentiated cells that allows a growing plant to produce new parts. Like stem cells in animals, these meristem cells have the potential to develop into shoots, leaves or flowers in the growing plant.{span class=”print trim”}

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Fasciated apple tree branch. Fasciation is caused by a hormonal imbalance that can result in mutation in a single cell in the central zone, or tip, of the meristem.

Fasciation is caused by a hormonal imbalance that can result in mutation in a single cell in the central zone, or tip, of the meristem. This mutation alters the meristem from producing its normal round stem to a flattened one. This mutation can be natural in its occurrence or, as some believe, the result of damage from insects like leafhoppers. Fasciation can also be induced by one or more environmental factors, most commonly cold damage in spring. Exposure to auxin type herbicides like 2,4-D, can also cause fasciation. Auxin type herbicides mimic the action of plant growth hormones, and the result is uncontrolled and deformed growth. Even a non-lethal dose could cause fascinated tissue.

There are more than 100 plant species known to display fasciation. The good news is that it is not contagious or fatal, except those cases of herbicide exposure. The results can be quite novel and interesting. In fact, plant breeders have selected some fascinated plants and reproduced them through asexual propagation. One such plant is the “Fantail Willow” that resembles something from a Dr. Seuss book. The dried branches are in high demand among florists. A limited number of plants can transmit the fasciation characteristic through seed, most notably the “Cockscomb Celosia” Celosia argentea, which gardeners have enjoyed for generations. The cockscomb celosia has flowers that are either tightly clusters or round and lobed like a velvety brain. In this case the fascinated growth is likely caused by a permanent change in the genome.{span class=”print trim”}

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Dried Fasciated Fantail Willow. Fasciation is not contagious or fatal, except those cases of herbicide exposure. 

It is comforting to know that fasciation does not mean doom and gloom for our plants. I’d encourage you to spend some time observing your plants, you might just find a genetic rarity for yourself. While pruning my apple trees this last winter, I noticed a single branch originating off the main trunk that started flat and then splayed into a number of smaller stems that arched up. The resulting branch looked like a rack of a prized buck. Just last week while out in my garden I observed a single stem of a white coneflower that had a flattened stem that flowed up to the resulting bloom full of florets and petals. It looked as though someone had put it in a vise and it stayed that way.

Check out your own garden!

Joshua Fuder, Agriculture and Natural Resources Agent, UGA Cherokee County Extension office. If you have any questions, call 770-721-7830 or visit my blog @ blog.extension.uga.edu/cherokee. For upcoming seminars, follow us on Facebook at www.facebook.com/ cherokeemastergardeners or on our website at cherokeemastergardenersinc.wildapricot.org.

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