The Fascinating World of Fasciation

The other day, I saw this gigantic mutant strawberry on reddit that looked like it had either been growing in a radiation zone, hitting the gym regularly, or sprinkled with magic dust. I immediately felt more than mildly interested in this phenomenon, which is called fasciation.

As it turns out, fasciation is fairly rare occurrence that nonetheless occurs in a wide variety of vascular plants. These mutant strawberries may be a bit unnerving to look at, but they are totally safe to eat. The only problem is that you’re more likely to come across a fasciated dandelion or daisy out in the wild than a strawberry or pineapple at the grocery store because the so-called ugly produce tends to be weeded out.

Fasciation is essentially unregulated tissue growth that occurs when the apical meristem, better known as the growing tip of the plant strays from shooting upward in cylindrical fashion and instead splays out flat, resulting in ribbon-like plant stems, elongated or multiple flower heads, and semi-circular strawberries.

Regular and fasciated mule’s ears from Wikipedia

Although fasciation tends to present as a flattened main stem, the phenomenon can occur nearly anywhere in the plant — the root, stem, leaves, flower heads, or fruit. It can be localized to just one area, or it affect the entire plant.

Fasciation gets compared to cancer because it has a number of causes and ways of expression, but it’s not quite as harmful or scary. Some races of plants exhibit extreme expression of fasciation. While it’s not fatal, it’s also not ideal, because the condition can result in broken tissues, distorted organization, and a decrease in fertility.

Fasciation: How does it work?

One absolute unit of dandelion. Image via Wild Yorkshire

Fasciation has many causes both internal and external. Internally, it happens because of a hormonal imbalance in the growth cells, a bacterial or viral infection, or a random genetic mutation. There are also environmental causes, like chemical exposure, cold and frost exposure, or fungi, mite, and insect attacks.

The wonder of fasciation knows no geographical, climatic, ecological, or taxonomical bounds among vascular plants. It equally affects annuals, biennials, and perennials; woody and herbaceous plants; shrubs, trees, and vines. Although fasciation can occur in any vascular plant, it is quite common in the rose (includes strawberries), legume, sunflower, and cactus families, and is often found among dandelions and snapdragons.

Some vascular plants are prone to fasciation and prized for it, like the cockscomb (Celosia cristata) flower. A few fasciated flora have even become objects of reverence, like the Virgin Mary appearing on a slice of toast. There was once a fasciated pumpkin vine growing in South India. The twenty-foot-long fasciated portion drew huge crowds of people to worship it, believing the vine to be an incarnation of King Cobra or Naga Sarpa, messenger of the god Vishnu.

This spring, I’ll be looking high and low for abnormal dandelions and daisies. I’ve already started scouting the produce at the grocery store for giant strawberries and found these two in the same box. Won’t you join me? We’re probably more likely to find fasciated fruits or flowers than four-leaf clovers.