Plant Wisdom

sea-rocketA recent Celsias posting about M. Night Shyamalan's newest movie, The Happening, reminds us that 'plant attacks' are not solely the property of Shyamalan's science fiction. Plants in the real world, just as in the movie, can release deadly toxins in response to threats. We haven't seen plants strike back at us- yet.

Before we re-enact the plot of Shyamalan's movie, and find ourselves at the wrong end of a biotic attack, I hope we can learn from plants. I've written before in this space about plants, their interconnectedness, ability to communicate and the lessons they have to teach us.

A new scientific result supports my contention that plants are far smarter than we think they are. A New York Times article this week reports that “The sea rocket (a flowering beach plant), researchers report, can distinguish between plants that are related to it and those that are not. And not only does this plant recognize its kin, but it also gives them preferential treatment.” This plant's ability to detect those like it, and tailor its actions based on that detection, suggests a very sophisticated decision-making apparatus. The scientists found that if the plant “detects unrelated plants growing in the ground with it, the plant aggressively sprouts nutrient-grabbing roots. But if it detects family, it politely restrains itself.” The plant judges its situation, and makes itself aware of what it might be hurting, before spreading its roots.

Why is this a big surprise? Because scientist's results currently suggest that most “animals have not even been shown to have the ability to recognize relatives, despite the huge advantages in doing so.” So are plants more sophisticated than animals in this area of cognition? Perhaps.

These results suggest that plants have “a secret social life,” according to Dr. Susan A. Dudley, an evolutionary plant ecologist at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, who carried out the study.

Why have we for so long considered plants, as the Times says, “so much immobile, passive greenery”? Perhaps because their ways of being are so radically different from ours. Perhaps because they don't have the same eyes, ears, nose, mouth, or nervous system that we do, we assume they are simply incapable of recognition and response.

This study re-raises the question I asked nearly one year ago. How much do plants know? Are they self aware? Are they intelligent?

The answers to these questions are certainly not settled science. What is known is that “Plants do send electrical signals from one part of the plant to another,” according to Dr. Eric D. Brenner, a botanist at The New York Botanical Garden and a member of the Society of Plant Neurobiology. What is not known is what those signals do.

In my last posting on plant communication I advised we remember our ignorance when we deal with the natural world. In light of this latest study, I can't emphasize that message enough. The new revelation about plant awareness should also serve as a model for our behavior. Just as plants sense what's around them in a careful, methodical manner before acting aggressively, so should humans gently sense our natural world instead of blindly destroying it.

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  • Posted on June 15, 2008. Listed in:

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