“RIP Marisol the Sunflower” or Inside Plant Decay








Marisol was the name of my small Sunflower plant living on my windowsill. One day during a dreary december in “The Garden State”, I noticed Marisol had keeled over and died. Saddened, I decided on a viking funeral for my courageous sunflower, gone too soon, but upon inspecting her limp, wilted corpse, I discover that there was more to the story that just forgetting to water her. Grabbing my handy Foldscope, I decided this was a great opportunity to investigate the world of dead plants and decay. I found some intriguing things.


My slide with the samples taken from Marisol's planter.
My slide with the samples taken from Marisol’s planter.

I took various samples from the realm of Marisol’s pot, such as an in tact leaf, a decaying leaf, soil, and a suspiciously plump worm found wriggling about the root system of my Sunflower plant. I thought it would be cool to look at the various stages of decay as my plant was dying. First, I looked at the in-tact leaf, a reminder of how vibrant and green my plant was before she was cruelly felled by the fates and winter weather.



intact leaf sample
intact leaf sample

Looking at the leaf sample, you can make out the distinctions of the cell walls within the various section of the leaf. Each of the visible plant cells also seem to have a similar boxy shape and are closely packed in an orderly fashion.

decaying leaf
decaying leaf





On the right is a close-up of a leaf in the mid stages of decay. on a macro scale, this sample looked like a dark brown blob, well on its way to becoming dinner for the primary consumers. However, I was surprised to find some green under the Foldscope, and saw how the bacteria that were presumably digesting the leaf matter had changed its composition. The cell walls, while still visible, are clearly distorted and no longer uniform, forming bulbous aggregates instead.


Root sample, with some noticeable deacy
Root sample, with some noticeable deacy

I decided to probe further, and looked at a sample of the root system of the plant. I found that it had signs of decay, but was still intact mostly. It was fascinating to be able to see the root hairs up close, as well as the internal structures. However, when collecting the root sample, I found culprit to the death of my sunflower plant.



Suspect A : a translucent worm, with some plant matter
Suspect A : a translucent larva, with some plant matter


Now, I am no expert in nematodes, and even after extensive research, I was only able to deduce that I had a larval-stage worm or insect that was majorly predating on my plant’s roots, but I was unable to confidently identify it.

Digestive tract of larva






What I could identify however, was that this larva had done some major damage, and had clearly been eating the root system of my sunflower plant, as i saw under the microscope: his digestive tract was full of plant matter!




While I was not able to name him, the larva, in conjunction with the bitter cold of new jersey and some fungus, meant the demise of my beloved sunflower plant. And while sad, the opportunity to look into the environment surrounding plant death was a fascinating adventure, and I felt like I had newfound appreciation for the struggles of being a plant and constantly being under siege.


I conducted this project as part of Professor Pringle’s EEB321 class at Princeton University



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