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How Daily & Seasonal Cycles Affect Plants

Instructor: David Wood

David has taught Honors Physics, AP Physics, IB Physics and general science courses. He has a Masters in Education, and a Bachelors in Physics.

Plants live on a planet with days and seasons, and that affects their behavior. Learn about the daily and seasonal cycles of plants, and see how much you've learned with a quiz.

The Cycles of Plants

The earth is covered in plants. There were plants before there were ever humans, and before there were other animals. The plants on Earth evolved on Earth. And while those plants were evolving they were experiencing a 24 hour day, with dark and light. They were also experiencing seasons that varied across the 365 day year. So it shouldn't be surprising that plants have adapted themselves to live with the cycles.

After all, humans have done the same thing. We humans sleep when it's dark and are awake when it's light. We developed electric lights to help is in the winter. Plants might not be able to create gadgets, but the very way their internal chemistry works is affected by the daily and seasonal cycles of the earth.

How Daily Cycles Affect Plants

Plants create energy from sunlight, water and carbon dioxide gas in a process called photosynthesis. So the times of day when there is plenty of light has an effect on that photosynthesis. For example, plants release different chemicals depending on the time of day. When summer is approaching, the plant prepares itself to absorb the light and create energy. Photosynthesis also requires carbon dioxide gas from the atmosphere. But at night, since it has no light and cannot photosynthesize, there's little point absorbing carbon dioxide gas either. Because of this, many plants close their leaf pores, called stomata, to reduce water loss during the night.

Stomata are openings on the bottom of leaves that let in carbon dioxide and close during the night
Stomata are openings on the bottom of leaves that let in carbon dioxide and close during the night

Some plants will close their flowers during the night for similar reasons, and plants use the length of day as a way of figuring out what time of year it is. When winter is approaching, they can tell is the days are getting shorter, and they can start to adapt to that.

Morning glory flowers close at night
Morning glory flowers close at night

How Seasonal Cycles Affect Plants

The seasonal cycles of plants are probably more well-known. As the days get shorter, some plants use this as a signal that it's time to change their behavior.

As winter is approaching, plants like trees will shed the leaves. This process is quite beautiful to humans, producing trees full of orange, red, and yellow leaves. Since there isn't a lot of light to absorb the cold winter, some plants have realized that it is more efficient to keep as much of the moisture as they can inside and wait until there is more sunlight again. So they pull the moisture from the leaves into the trunk, letting them dry out and fall.

In winter, many trees lose their leaves to conserve water
autumn tree leaves

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