Seen, it graces a path; touched, it folds tightly

If you have never grown that quaint "sensitive plant" -- that's the common name for it -- you've missed much pleasure and not a little wonder. This is a plant (Mimosa pudica)m that thrives in front of an herb or flower border or even inside as a houseplant, if adequate moisture is provided. And all the time, inside or out, it earns its keep by amusing everyone with its strange habit of folding tightly on being touched.

I bought my first Mimosa pudicam several years ago when greenhouse-shopping for the garden. There it was, a low plant, charmingly delicate, with fernlike leaves and airy lavender-pink blossoms. It's a member of the pea family, I was told at the time.

The Mimosa pudicam is perennial in tropical areas but a winter houseplant in my Mid-western climate.

I had picked up the pot, as one does for a closer inspection, and was amazed to see the plant's greenery shrink away from me. In the briefest of time only a bony scarecrow of what I first saw remained.

What had I done, I wondered. Then, just as suddenly, the plant unfolded as if nothing had happened. I only then learned its common name.

Curious, I bought the plant and then set it, pot and all, into the earth by the kitchen door. There I could keep an eye on this oddity. And so I watched, as did everyone else who came calling. The sensitive plant performed its odd trick without fail, fascinating children and grownups alike.

Each spring, I bought a new plant. Finally, to be able to have some to give away, I decided to grow my own. I found a packet of seed, very moderately priced, at a garden store.

"Sow indoors, one-eighth inch deep in fine soil," the packet said.

"Transplant to small pots and set out when the weather warms," the advice went on. This proved easy and successful. I had plants to make a border and plants to give away. And the proces is repeated each year.

The sensitive plant has remained a joy, revealing new things about itself each year. For example, it doesn't need human touch to shrink. A pencil, plant marker, or twig sets it into its act. It also folds up when evening comes. Youngsters have been known to go out with a flashlight, and exclaim: "It's sleeping. It's sleeping."

We've noticed, too, its tendency to close up before a storm. I consider this a mysterious inexplicable quality.

There's another definite plus for Mimosa pudica.m If the spot where the plant grew last year is not disturbed, you might find the tiniest and most delicate of seedlings the following growing season. just one plant may produce a dozen baby plants. This is an amazing rate of return, considering the cost of a single mature specimen in the greenhouse.

You can sow directly outdoors in warm climates. Germination time is 10 to 16 days, depending on the weather. And you may have pretty good results with the sensitive plant inside the house, too, if you provide extra humidity. Set it in a flat dish of water-surrounded pebbles, always in a warm place. You can also keep it in a terrarium.

Why don't you grow this charming little oddity. It's truly an experience.

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