Science Update: Moonlight

by Guido Masé January 08, 2016

Life on earth would be quite different without our natural satellite. Most would agree that the daily rising and falling of the moon, along with the monthly waxing and waning cycles, have effects on our oceans and seas. The tides are crucial to life: tidal pools, sheltered and renewed in rhythm with these cycles, catalyzed some of the first stable ecologies and still represent unique niches. While it may not be as widely recognized yet, it is becoming more clear that the moon also affects the flow of water through plants: sap moves more vigorously during the waxing phase as the moon grows to full, and slows down as the moon wanes to a thin morning crescent.

Isabella Guerrini, at the University of Perugia in Italy, works in the department of agriculture studying plant and animal consciousness and its integration into ecological pattern and rhythm. Her observations of sap flow in plants confirm1 that, indeed, fluid flows more full as the moon becomes full, slowing down as the moon wanes. This, she explains, has important consequences for plant growth and pruning: vigorous, sappy plants will suffer if cut, harvested, or pruned close to the full moon. First off, leaking sap exposes the plant to disease and pest incursion. But furthermore, sap from a cut plant, now deprived of its primary outlet, will engorge smaller channels, where new buds are developing on side branches, and potentially rupture those channels leading to the death of the buds (a phenomenon known as “lunar burn”, because it was so often noted around the full moon). Less vigorous, less juicy plants, like ground-covers or vines, conversely may benefit from being cut when sap flow is strong: it will stimulate the development of side shoots and encourage fuller, branching growth.

Those who work with plants every day have certainly noticed differences in moisture content, flavor (meaning chemistry), and more. This can have important consequences across a range of applications, from medicine to construction. For an excellent review of the subject, see Ian Cole and Michael Balick’s review article.2 The authors discuss a range of traditional practices related to moon phase, from the harvesting of construction and thatch materials, to the planting of staple crops, to the gathering of medicines. In their review of some contemporary research, they catalog differences in plant chemistry and fluid balance based on seasonal and circadian (day-long) rhythms, but note that studies that examine lunar rhythms are still few and far between. In my personal experimentation, I concur that flavor and phytochemical variation is most noticeable as part of a seasonal cycle, but moisture content (once variables such as rainfall are accounted for) is very closely tied to lunar cycles. Water weight in a botanical sample can vary up to 10% between the days just before the full moon and the week before the new moon. This parallels what researchers have found in lumber: wood from spruce and chestnut, harvested in the last week of the moon phase, has the lowest water percentage and shrinks the least during drying.3 It is rumored that the wooden stilts upon which Venice was built all were harvested during the last few days of the moon cycle: less water and denser fibers means less susceptibility to rotting and parasites.

Ernst Zürcher, who published the research on lumber harvesting, expanded on Cole and Balick’s work,4 cataloging the changes in moisture content, as well as effects on plant germination, growth, and development in many different plants as relates to lunar cycles. The conclusions are consistent: there is indeed a lunar effect. But he also points out that the easy explanation (a tide-like gravitational force) is most likely incorrect, as the amount of water in even the largest tree is relatively small, and a tidal force would be negligible. An intriguing hypothesis is that moonlight itself may contribute to electromagnetic effects that alter the surface tension of water, allowing for some of the microscopic effects that have been experimentally documented. All plants grow differently during different phases of the moon—this has been observed in scientific research since the 1970s5 and, more recently, documented on the microscopic level by observing changes in rootlet growth.6 But as to why—this question is still unresolved.

In conclusion, moonlight is subtle—typically, even at its peak, only about 15% as strong as sunlight. But its rays penetrate the soil, and affect plant life from germination to harvest. Most plants seem to need a rhythmic exposure to moonlight—at least for a week or so around the full moon—for optimal immunity, wound healing, regeneration, and growth. Plant harvesting should ideally heed the lunar cycle, not simply for potency and low water content, but because many plants (especially strong, vigorous growers) recover better when they are harvested during the last week of the lunar cycle. Modern research is confirming many of the observations recorded in the oral tradition of farmers, foresters, and herbalists, but is just beginning to explain why. It seems that the subtle effects of moonlight can alter the way water behaves as it interfaces with living cells, perhaps through bio-electric mechanisms. As the old myths tell us, the moon is a powerful force, regulating the unseen, yin-like processes hidden under the surfaces of things, deeply connected to water and moisture. Easy explanations of its effects can often be misdirection – the moon may seem to lay out a trail for us, but this trail often leads to places we’d never expect. But just as tidal forces served to shape early life on our planet, the more hidden effects we are just starting to understand may be essential to maintain healthy life on earth today.What we do know is that moonlight, while generally similar to the sunlight it reflects, shifts a bit towards the infrared (see spectral graph, from CIRA, at Colorado State University) and also has some gaps that may be linked to the presence of traces of sodium in the lunar “atmosphere."7 This makes moonlight not just a less intense version of sunlight—it is somewhat qualitatively different, too. Dr. Guerrini has speculated that the rhythmic, additional irradiation from moonlight is an important adjunct to the growth and metabolism of healthy plants: not only have we seen change in growth and leaf movements, but also in patterns of starch storage (highest in the waning phase) and utilization (highest in the days before the full moon). These effects, along with preliminary documentation of immune  deficiency and poor wound healing from moonlight-deprived plants, encourage us to think of moonlight as an important part of a plant’s overall “nutrition”. Interestingly, this “nutrition”8 seems to be more a modulation of bio-electric activity rather than a source of photosynthetic energy.

Guido Masé
Guido Masé

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