Animal Crossing: New Horizons
Plant science in...

Plant science in Animal Crossing

Animal Crossing: New Horizons
Image credit: Nintendo

If you’ve been on any form of social media in the last three weeks, you may have noticed a Cambrian explosion of mini avatars, flaunting their cute clothing and house designs. Yes, Nintendo has finally released the fifth version of their critically acclaimed gaming series ‘Animal Crossing’, quenching the thirst of their millions of fans with ‘New Horizons’, after a gaming drought of eight years. If it hasn’t crossed your feed yet, Animal Crossing is a real-time, social simulation game, where you meet anthropomorphic animal friends, collect fish, bugs and fossils, and pay off large debts to a shop-owner tanuki (Japanese raccoon dog) called Tom Nook, as he builds your accommodation ever larger. But this time, on a deserted island.

Since its conception in 2001, every game in the series has featured a myriad of plants; houseplants, garden plants, weeds, trees and bushes. Many players have found the addition of plants to the game one of the best aspects, as it allows the player to grow a virtual garden that they can water and tend to. All of the plants featured in the game are found in real life and I would like to introduce you to a few, and tell you a little about the science behind them.

Pansy

If you find yourself in Tom Nook’s shop today, you may find a packet of pansy seeds to plant and grow in your garden. The ornamental pansies that these are based on are actually a hybrid of several pansy species. A hybrid plant is produced when two different plant species are bred together and, unlike in most animal hybrids, hybrid plants are usually fertile. By hybridising these species, many wonderfully colourful variations of pansies have been cultivated.

Many hybrid pansies are derived from crossing Viola tricolor with other pansy species. There are many common names for this species, among them are Johnny Jump Up, Heart’s Ease, Tickle-My-Fancy, Three Faces in a Hood and Love-in-Idleness, all of which are brilliant. And this plant doesn’t just boast an amazing array of names. Viola tricolor has a long history as a medicinal plant, due to the impressive number of chemicals it produces.

Traditionally in folk medicine, its anti-inflammatory properties made it a popular choice for treating skin ailments, including ulcers, eczema and psoriasis, and inflammation of the chest, including asthma and bronchitis. More recently, the chemicals produced by V. tricolor have been studied for their anti-inflammatory [1], anti-cancer [2], anti-microbial [3] and anti-oxidant [4] properties, and potential use as treatments in medicine. 

So now I hear you crying, “Do these medicinal properties continue into the hybrid plants we grow in our gardens?” Some of them, yes! In a study of Viola tricolor x wittrockiana hybrid garden pansies, the flower was found to be a promising source of natural antioxidants [5]. Plus, they taste great in salads. Give them a try next time you’re preparing one for lunch!

Rafflesia

Should you neglect your town in Animal Crossing, you may find yourself in possession of a Rafflesia plant.  An appropriate choice, this species is known as the Stinking Corpse Plant (Rafflesia arnoldii) in real life, for the distinct odour it produces. A rare native to Sumatra and Borneo, this plant is one of three national flowers in Indonesia, where it has the name padma raksasa meaning ‘giant flower’.

There are many features of the Corpse Plant that make it interesting. It has the largest individual flower of any plant, with a diameter of around one meter, it is produces the smell of rotting meat to attract flies and beetles to pollinate it and its seeds are eaten and dispersed by treeshrews. But what I find most fascinating about this plant is its parasitic nature.

A parasitic plant is one that gains its nutrients from another living plant. Many parasitic plants have no leaves and are not green because they don’t have to perform photosynthesis. In the case of the Corpse Plant, it has no roots, no stem and no leaves, making it completely reliant on its host for reproduction. This is called a holoparasite. It is only visible when it’s flowering, and its flowers blossom from the bark of its host. It is this property that makes the Corpse Plant so rare and so hard to find. 

So, how does something with no leaves, no stem and no roots evolve? Previous research methods for describing a plant’s relationship to other species has relied on exactly these things, because like species have similar characteristics in each. For example, many species in the Lamiaceae family (sage family) are aromatic and generally have square stems. But when a plant has no characteristic properties besides its flower, it becomes difficult to trace its lineage. However, modern methods, such as DNA analysis, have been able to shed some light on where it lies in the classification system [6]. But how it got to the parasitic point that it has remains a mystery.

Jacob’s Ladder

The final plant we’ll discuss in this blog, and one described as the antithesis of Rafflesia in Animal Crossing, is Jacob’s Ladder. While Rafflesia is a punishment for a messy town, Jacob’s Ladder is a reward for a well-tended one. Although it bears the same name as Polemonium caeruleum, it is more likely to be based on Convallaria majalis, who’s common name is Lily of the Valley. The name it is given in the game could be in reference to cleanliness being close to Godliness, as Jacob’s Ladder is metaphorically known as the stairway to heaven. Lily of the Valley also has biblical ties. It is said to have bloomed where Eve’s tears fell as she left the Garden of Eden.

From its delicate, white flowers and sweet, gentle aroma, it’s easy to see why this plant became a symbol of innocence. However, this beautiful species is dangerously poisonous. Digitalis intoxication caused by ingestion of Lily of the Valley, often by children, can lead to digestive disorders (nausea and vomiting), reduced heart rate, blurred vision, drowsiness and, at worst, death [7]. It is not uncommon for people to mistake its leaves for wild garlic and, in some cases, die as a result [8]. This has served as inspiration for popular culture such as Breaking Bad, where [SPOILER ALERT] Walter White uses it to poison Jesse’s girlfriend’s son, Brock.

In traditional medicine, tonics made from Lily of the Valley were used to treat heart problems and, as with many traditional medicines, it was later found this treatment was ground in science. Lily of the Valley contains cardiac glycosides, which cause the reduced heart rate observed during poisoning. Glycosides are used as treatments for congestive heart failure and arrhythmias, as they increase the force of heart contractions while reducing heart rate [9]. While beta blockers and ACE inhibitors are now the primary treatment for such disorders, it’s impressive to see, once again, our ancestors finding  similar solutions to problems with little to no apparent understanding of the science behind it.

Thank you for taking the time to read about Plant Science in Animal Crossing! If you have a suggestions for another ‘Plant Science in…’ blog, feel free to Contact Me!

I hope you enjoy the rest of your day.

Sources

  1. He, W., Chan, L.Y., Zeng, G., Daly, N.L., Craik, D.J. and Tan, N., 2011. Isolation and characterization of cytotoxic cyclotides from Viola philippica. Peptides32(8), pp.1719-1723.
  2. Svangard E, Goransson U, Hocaoglu Z, Gullbo J, Larsson R, Claeson P, Bohlin L. Cytotoxic cyclotides from Viola tricolorJ. Nat. Prod. 2004;67:144–147.
  3. Witkowska-Banaszczak E, Bylka W, Matlawska I, Goslinska O, Muszynski Z. Antimicrobial activity of Viola tricolor herb. Fitoterapia. 2005;76:458–461.
  4. Vukics V, Kery A, Bonn GK, Guttman A. Major flavonoid components of heartsease (Viola tricolor L.) and their antioxidant activities. Anal. Bioanal. Chem. 2008a;390:1917–1925.
  5. Vukics, V., Kery, A. and Guttman, A., 2008. Analysis of polar antioxidants in heartsease (Viola tricolor L.) and garden pansy (Viola x wittrockiana Gams.). Journal of chromatographic science46(9), pp.823-827.
  6. Barkman, T.J., Lim, S.H., Salleh, K.M. and Nais, J., 2004. Mitochondrial DNA sequences reveal the photosynthetic relatives of Rafflesia, the world’s largest flower. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences101(3), pp.787-792.
  7. Alexandre, J., Foucault, A., Coutance, G., Scanu, P. and Milliez, P., 2012. Digitalis intoxication induced by an acute accidental poisoning by lily of the valley. Circulation125(8), pp.1053-1055.
  8. https://xpatloop.com/channels/2013/05/lily-of-the-valley-poisons-man-to-death-in-hungary.html
  9. Patel, S., 2016. Plant-derived cardiac glycosides: Role in heart ailments and cancer management. Biomedicine & Pharmacotherapy84, pp.1036-1041.

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