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I came across a story on about David Latimer, who put spiderwort plants into a bottle garden ("terrarium") in 1960, watered it in 1972, and then sealed the bung. The plants have been living, thriving even, in their own ecosystem since.

The story was reported in the Daily Mail.

Thriving since 1960, my garden in a bottle: Seedling sealed in its own ecosystem and watered just once in 53 years

  • David Latimer first planted his bottle garden in 1960 and last watered it in 1972 before tightly sealing it shut 'as an experiment'

  • The hardy spiderworts plant inside has grown to fill the 10-gallon container by surviving entirely on recycled air, nutrients and water

Here it is again in The Times. There are a few more places this article can be found in various forms on the web.

Now this question text is copied from this Skeptics question. The reason I am asking here is that I have seen the exact same story and have the exact same question but, somewhat shockingly, noone on Skeptics thought to ask a botanist or even a biologist if any of that is remotely true.

Now, I am no botanist or gardener or biologist but I know the Law of Concervation of Energy. Which states that the amount of energy/matter at the start WILL be equal to the amount at the end if you consider all factors. Meaning if plants consume water and nutrients there is no way they can extrude the same amount they have consumed in order to consume it again.

Am I right in my thesis? Is this story possible?

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You forget a crucial fact: There is an influx of energy from sun.

The whole earth as an eco system works in a similar way as the plant and its environment in the experiment. There is no contradiction regarding energy. Law of Conservation of Energy applies as usual. From energy point of view, there is nothing to prevent the experiment from existing.

As for chemicals like water, plants return water to the environment to the great extent. It is actually amazing how much water evaporates from an adult large conifer during hot seasons - it is unbelievable. The similar logic can be applied to other chemicals. There may be off course a lot of complex chemical processes in such experiment. I guess after some time, perhaps 5 or 7 or 12 years, the system reached equilibrium, adjusting itself to the environment, and continued to function for so long.

Many factors can contribute to the outcome of the experient. But I think there is no proof that such experiment must fail.

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  • But don't plants break down water in order to consume it for whatever needs? How do they return it later on? Moreover don't they also consume nutrients from the soil that they do not return in any way? – mathgenius Mar 21 '18 at 5:17
  • I don't see any reason that the nutrients should all-out disappear in a bottle. Outside a bottle, nitrogen and hydrogen might escape as gases, but the atoms should still exist in a bottle. They might change into different forms, however. Something potentially could convert it back into more useful forms. Keep in mind that the bottle probably contains bacteria and nematodes, among other life-forms, which may provide carbon dioxide to the plant, at the very least. – Brōtsyorfuzthrāx Mar 21 '18 at 6:38
  • I don't know that plants break down water. Maybe they do, but I don't know of a source that says so, offhand. They might release water into the air somehow, however. I know the air can be more humid around lots of plants. A study of transpiration might be insightful. – Brōtsyorfuzthrāx Mar 21 '18 at 6:42
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    @mathgenius - plants recycle water via a process called transpiration from the stomata in the leaves - in a sealed environment, it'd work. Nutrients are returned to soil even if only because of leaves falling and decaying and bacterial activity in the soil - and this bottle gets some sunlight, which is probably why its carried on so long. Its got a perfect ecosystem biologicperformance.com/…. Note he topped the water up once, see link – Bamboo Mar 21 '18 at 10:18
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Photosynthesis consumes water and CO2 (and uses light as an ebergy input). Pretty quickly the CO2 will be depleted, at which point the plant won't use water (but will transpire it into the air; some will probably condense on the glass sometimes). Some tiny amount of CO2 will diffuse through what appears to be a natural cork as it will be quite dry. More information on the stopper would be useful. The plant will be almost dormant, though the pictures suggest that over decades it grew to almost fill its container.

Because photosynthesis will grind to a halt, other nutrients won't be needed for growth. Plants can survive, even if not thrive, with very little in the way of nutrients. I kept a spider plant alive (and growing) in a bottle of water for several years, just topping up the water every few weeks. Eventually the roots filled the bottle and I potted it up.

A lot could have gone wrong: too much or too little water, light, or heat for example. A plant from a tropical region (or warm temperate -- we don't know which tradescantia species it is) was probably a good choice for indoor growth. A low-growing plant that might be expected to grow in the shade of taller plants would also adapt well to growing in low light levels ("under the stairs" in the Times article), and it may well have been a species adapted to damp places.

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