The hormone ethylene (ETH-uh-LEEN) plays a role in the ripening of fruits. Unlike other plant hormones, ethylene is a gas at room temperature. Ethylene gas diffuses easily through the air from one plant to another. The saying "One bad apple spoils the barrel" has its basis in ethylene gas. One rotting apple will produce ethylene gas, which stimulates nearby apples to ripen and then spoil.

In commercial use, ethylene is usually applied in a solution of ethephon (ETH-uh-fohn), a synthetic chemical that breaks down to release ethylene gas. It is used to ripen bananas, honeydew melons, and tomatoes. Oranges, lemons, and grapefruits often remain green when they are ripe. Although the green fruit may taste good, consumers will not usually buy them. The application of ethylene to green citrus fruits causes desirable citrus colors, such as yellow and orange, to develop.

In some plant species, ethylene promotes abscission, the detachment of leaves, flowers, or fruits. Growers can use mechanical tree shakers to harvest cherries and other crops if the fruit is sprayed with ethylene before harvest. Leaf abscission can be an adaptive advantage. Dead, damaged, or infected leaves drop off rather than shading healthy leaves or spreading disease. The plant can minimize water loss in winter, when water in the environment is often frozen.

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