No more correlative inhibition for me

I’ve been thinking about pruning lately. I’ve experienced some “pruning” in my life in the past few months. Pruning changes things in dramatic fashion. What was is now gone. New opportunities, even though it’s a painful process, will develop. It’s hard to be patient to see what develops. My thoughts have been on years of growth and effort that reached their end. The pruning of a plant is a living metaphor for what I’ve experienced as what is familiar is cut away and new directions await. It’s a metaphor because when “apical dominance” is removed, anything can happen.

Plants grow new buds at the tip of each shoot. These buds are known as the apical buds. The apical bud is where new plant growth and elongation occur. But that’s not all the apical bud does. The apical bud produces a plant hormone called auxin that flows through the plant’s vascular system (phloem) down the stem, and actually inhibits the growth and elongation of axillary buds along the stem which would otherwise produce new side shoots. The focus of the tip or leading bud is called “apical dominance.”

Apical dominance of a growing shoot

It means that the growing apex of a plant controls the quiescence (inactivity or dormancy) of buds sitting in lower positions along a shoot. Axillary buds form below the apical bud and eventually will form side branches. In botany axillary means “in or growing from an axil” with the axil the center point, the main stem.  In essence these buds are waiting for something to happen.  An opportunity. This kind of bud inhibition, when buds are waiting their turn along a stem, is termed ‘correlative inhibition’. It’s the phenomenon in plants where a main shoot dominates and inhibits the outgrowth of other shoots. But then something happens.  In plants with strong apical dominance, the main shoot tip can be damaged or eliminated altogether by pruning, pinching or herbivory (a fancy way to say the deer or rabbits have once again been feasting in your yard). This leads to the outgrowth and opportunity for compact embryonic shoots (axillary buds) to branch out below. This decapitation process of the focus, the apical bud, can cause a relatively unbranched plant to become bushy, drastically changing its morphology. It’s not just trees and shrubs. Herbaceous plants experience the same thing.  When you pinch off the tip of an herbaceous plant’s main shoot, you encourage bushier growth. This results in a more compact plant with shorter and more numerous stems, causing more flowers and fruit to grow. Basil is a great example of herbaceous pinching. It can be done with flowering annuals at planting time. Sure that initial bloom is pretty and it’s hard to sacrifice that one bloom you paid for when making your purchase. But the pinch of that dominant singular bloom allows the plant to focus energy on establishment and development of more blooms on the plant moving forward.

My focus on apical dominance and growth has caused the axillary opportunities I had to have to wait until the right time. But sometimes the right time is forced on you. No longer in control, correlative inhibition fades away and the uncomfortable prospect of unfamiliar direction and course takes control. What’s around the next corner? What is the next chapter? The unforeseen pruning I experienced will now provide an opportunity for new growth in different directions.

There comes a time when pruning, change, is necessary. It’s inevitable. Every path has an ending and every ending a lesson. That’s what I have been experiencing in the past few months. After years of growth I’ve been pruned. That apical focus and drive needed to change, for both my benefit and the benefit of others. It’s hard to see in the moment, but like all things it will become clearer with time. In turn opportunities will branch out how and where I do not know. But they will. And that’s a good thing. Renewal takes dramatic change, even pruning sometimes.


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