“How do you know that carrots don’t scream when you pull them out of the ground?” The student in the biology lecture hall was now the object of disbelieving looks, shakes of the head and twirling of fingers indicating she must be crazy. The professor was no less dumbfounded as he stared in her direction.
Words did not come to him quickly, and he fumbled for a response. What could he say?
He responded that, of course, vegetables did not have feelings, did not scream, as she indicated, and we should dismiss the subject entirely. After all, we were talking about simple, one-celled plants and their cytoplasm, not carrots, not vegetables of any type. If we had been talking about vegetables, would he have had a better response?
The professor wheeled on his heel, muttering to himself, and returned to sketching the outline of the one-celled plant on the blackboard. All of us, feeling she must be mortified, bent our heads down, and turned our attention to our notebooks. We concentrated on our sketching as though life depended on it.
The young woman was left alone in her defense of vegetables, specifically carrots. Carrots would have to wait for a defender more expert than a college freshman. And that day has come many decades later.
Plants “Yell” for Help
Plant sentience was considered pseudoscience when it was proposed in 1973 in “The Secret Life of Plants.” The book relates a remarkable experience with a plant.
Teaching a course on lie detectors, an impulse, more a joke than anything else, prompted Cleve Backster to hook up a plant to the lie detector. The result was a change in the readings when he watered the plant. It was so astounding; he was prompted to try another experiment.
“Backster thought about burning the actual leaf the electrodes were attached to. Before he could reach for a match, the tracing pattern on the graph swept upwards as if in response to the thought of threat. These 10 short minutes changed Backster’s life and gave him the idea of plant sentience — an idea so grand that it later was coined into the term “the Backster effect.” How could a plant know what he was preparing to do? It was preposterous and the idea of plant communication even more so. But the idea did not die.
Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird, the book’s authors, took up the exploration of the work with plant sentience. The work and their writing was criticized and viewed as little more than pseudoscience. Their proposal, however, was based on research by scientists (George Washington Carver, for one). They had suggested a state of plant life unheard of before and viewed as something belonging in the realm of fairies.
Plants Can Learn and Have Innate Abilities
New research suggests that, if we listen to plants, they do communicate with each other and engage in a type of “talk” as well as protective actions. How can a plant protect itself? An example will suffice.
When voracious caterpillars attack corn seedlings, the plants emit a volatile compound that attracts the caterpillars’ enemy, wasps — calling for help? An exciting proposition, but is it under the control of the plant? The answer is yes because this same compound is not found when a plant is mechanically damaged, only when the bug is present and eating away.
How could a plant “know” to do that and what help would come, especially since these were seedlings without experience? Perhaps we have fooled ourselves by refusing to consider plant life in its whole as no more than simple tropisms.
What innate abilities might plants have? According to research by Dr. Monica Gagliano, plants can learn by experience. In one experiment with a Mimosa pudica, a plant with leaf sensitivity, she dropped potted plants onto foam, and their leaves closed in the expected reaction.
But, after a few trials, they did not close. Gagliano asserts this is because they “knew” the dropping wasn’t a threat. To ensure that they could still close their leaves if in danger, she shook the plants; they closed their leaves. Sentience or wishful thinking?
Plant Altruism, Vision and Math Ability Is Insinuated
Plants, according to several studies, react in a relationship whether or not they are “kin” to other plants in the area. In this regard, they may not allocate resources to their leaves and, instead, increase their stems and branches. This the researchers believe is a type of cooperation and altruism in allowing other plants needed access to sunlight.
The mighty Douglas fir may also “exhibit a kind of altruism, using extensive underground fungal networks to share water and nutrients with other plants based on need. This sharing extends to the trees’ own seedlings and even to members of other species.” Mosses, similarly, engage in helping to nurture other plants within their area.
More than generous, plants can ensure adequate resources for themselves to last through the night. In this, they perform “mental” calculations to measure the amount of starch in their leaves and estimate when dawn will come so that they can sustain themselves until sunrise. At daybreak, 95% of their resources have been depleted. But they survived the night.
Charles Darwin, in his 1880 book, entitled The Power of Movement in Plants, opened a new field. In the book, he indicated that plants have the ability not only to move away from obstacles and toward water but to direct movements of adjoining plant parts. In effect, he was saying that plant root tips are similar to “the brain of one of the lower animals.”
Darwin also proposed that there was an electrical signaling system as well as more systems to be explored in future research. Stefano Mancuso, a researcher, also believes that plants have more in terms of abilities than we have ever imagined. He has formed the Society for Plant Neurobiology and believes that plants may “see” by their photoreceptors which can pick up different wavelengths of colors.
Plant research is a promising field. And, if we keep our minds open to the possibilities in it, we may be seeing that Chia pet in a whole new light.