Plants Can Talk - We Would Be Wise to Listen

Plant neurobiology sheds light on the value of complex communication and relationships built on cooperation for us all.

Plant neurobiology has only begun to be accepted as a legitimate study in the last decade, and major discoveries are already being made. When we begin to look at the world around us through a less animistic lens, we come to respect the amazing ways that plants communicate with each other and interact with their environment. Plant neurobiology embraces the reality that plants are sensate and have also developed a complex form of language, rich with meaning and nuance, that is only starting to be explored.

In an article for The New Yorker entitled "The Intelligent Plant," Michael Pollan tells us that "plants have evolved between fifteen and twenty distinct senses, including analogues of our five: smell and taste (they sense and respond to chemicals in the air or on their bodies); sight (they react differently to various wavelengths of light as well as to shadow); touch (a vine or a root knows when it encounters a solid object); and, it has been discovered, sound."

Richard Grant, a writer for Smithsonian Magazine, says, "Trees of the same species are communal, and will often form alliances with trees of other species. Forest trees have evolved to live in cooperative, interdependent relationships, maintained by communication and a collective intelligence similar to an insect colony. These soaring columns of living wood draw the eye upward to their outspreading crowns, but the real action is taking place underground, just a few inches below our feet."

Grant also interviewed Peter Wohlleben, a German forester and author of The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate. On the trees' system of mass communication, Wohlleben says, Some are calling it the wood-wide web'...All the trees here, and in every forest that is not too damaged, are connected to each other through underground fungal networks. Trees share water and nutrients through the networks, and also use them to communicate. They send distress signals about drought and disease, for example, or insect attacks, and other trees alter their behavior when they receive these messages.

In the video below, Ikea conducts a playful and not-very-scientific experiment to explore the intersection between plant and human interactions.

At the end of the month, the plant that had been played hurtful things like "nobody likes you," "are you even alive," or "you look rotten" looked different from the complimented plant. The bullied plant was obviously yellow and wilted, while the plant that was complimented was healthy and green.

To be clear, although plants do react to sound, there is absolutely no data to back up these particular claims by Ikea that bullying stops growth in plants. However, bullying definitely stops humans from developing healthy relationships. As we learn to appreciate how plants are interconnected, so may we come to value healthy relationships with each other and our world as a major factor in our own ability to thrive and survive.

Reality Changing Observations:

Q1. How does a deeper appreciation of the complex nature of plants make us better caretakers of our ecosystem?

Q2. Does our ill treatment of flora and fauna reflect upon our own character? Why or why not?

Q3. How could our knowledge of plant communication inform our own interactions with each other?

No. 1-1

Unfortunately, our relationship with plants in the U.S., specifically trees, has not been good. The early settlers often viewed the forest as a dark, terrifying impediment to progress, harboring all sorts of evil and boogeymen. Of course the wood was good for cabin building and later for commerce. Fortunes were made by clearcutting entire ecosystems. In some cases, along with the clearcutting came mass destruction such as burning 20 feet of humus that had accumulated under the trees over the centuries down to bare rock (Dolly Sods, WV). A relic of this era is the common philosophy found in the forest management programs of U.S. Forestry Schools. That philosophy is strictly dictated by the idea that forests must be managed by people so that they can remain "healthy". Forests can become "over-aged" which is silviculture talk for "wasted wood". How is it that our forests have ever survived total extinction prior to the arrival of Europeans in Jamestown to save them? Mature forests provide amazing things to those people who need to escape from the modern world. The value of these forests should be measured in the wonderful experiences of peace, tranquility, and wonder instead of in board-feet.