This week bought the news that the first flower has bloomed in space!

The flowers, Zinnia’s which were initially struggling at the end of last year bloomed a single flower on board the International Space Station. It isn’t the first plant to be grown in space though, lettuce has been successful. Due to the complexity of specific light requirements of flowers, they are a lot harder to achieve, particularly as they often do not have day and night periods found on Earth and require specific artificial lighting conditions using different coloured light.

For the long term success of plants in space, getting a plant to flower is significant, as it means the plant can then go on to produce fruit and other edibles (there are already plans to try growing tomatoes in  space in 2018). The experiment so far has had a few set backs; at the end of last year the astronaut Scott Kelly, tweeted a photo of mould growing on the Zinnia, due to humidity problems. In situations like this (and even in our own gardens) plants require monitoring for the first signs of stress to appear; sometimes it is necessary to learn what doesn’t work to know what does. The solution to the mould was to use a fan to create more airflow and dry the air out slightly. After this the plants began to recover and eventually developed flower buds.

“In future missions, the importance of plants will likely increase given the crews' limited connection to Earth,” Whitmire said. “Studies from other isolated and confined environments, such as Antarctic stations, demonstrate the importance of plants in confinement, and how much more salient fresh food becomes psychologically, when there is little stimuli around.”’

- Alexandra Whittier, NASA Human Research Program

This isn’t the first experiment of using horticulture in unknown conditions. ‘Biosphere 2’ was a project from the 1980’s that aimed to create a miniature version of our planet and its natural ecosystems, through a sealed domed enclosure in the desserts of southern Arizona. The study was an interesting one and involved a group of eight people living in an environment that attempted to replicate our own. The project really highlighted the complexity and elegance of nature and the web of relationships that sustain the Earth’s life systems and if worth further reading. 

 The publicity gained from this little flower has the ability to push scientific research further, and hopefully get more people interested in horticultural research which may help us to understand our own planet a bit more and reveal more of its hidden complexities.