OK, bear with me: I’m about to dive into a chasm of my own craziness that I never thoughts I’d say out loud:
I’m terrified of pumpkins.
This revelation has amused my partner and many of my coworkers for years, but I’m convinced that I can hear them, well, talking when I drive by them. Nuts, right? I know. But…recent studies have started to explore the concept of inter-plant communication and it seems that our little orange friends (or orange nemeses in my case) may not be sitting so ambiently in that field after all.
From “What a Plant Knows” by Maria Popova: “As I was planting my seasonal crop of tomatoes last month, a good friend (and my personal gardening guru) informed me that they liked their leaves rubbed, “like petting a pet’s ears,” which I received with equal parts astonishment, amusement, and mild concern for my friend. But, as Tel Aviv University biologist Daniel Chamovitz reveals in What a Plant Knows: A Field Guide to the Senses that might not be such a crazy idea after all. Plants, it turns out, possess a sensory vocabulary far wider than our perception of them as static, near-inanimate objects might suggest: They can smell their own fruits’ ripeness, distinguish between different touches, tell up from down, and retain information about past events; they “see” when you’re approaching them and even “know” whether you’re wearing a red or blue shirt; like us, they have unique genes that detect light and darkness to wind up their internal clock.”
Scientists have discovered that not only do plants respond to sound but they communicate with each other in a constant chatter.
Bristol University researchers used powerful loudspeakers to listen to corn saplings – and heard clicking sounds coming from their roots. When they suspended the saplings’ roots in water and played a continuous noise at a similar frequency to the clicks, the plants grew towards it. Plants are known to grow towards light, and a study earlier this year from Exeter University found cabbages emitted a volatile gas to warn others of danger such as caterpillars or garden shears.
But the researchers say this is the first solid evidence that plants have their own language of noises, inaudible to human ears. They suspect sound and vibration may play an important role in their life. Daniel Robert, a biology professor at Bristol University, said: “These very noisy little clicks have the potential to constitute a channel of communication between the roots.” The lead author of the study, Monica Gagliano from the University of Western Australia, said it made sense for plants to produce and respond to sound vibrations, as it gave them information about the environment around them.
Dr Gagliano said the research “opens up a new debate on the perception and action of people towards plants”, which should perhaps be treated as “living beings in their own right”.
Communication among plants has been the focus of study for decades. In 1983 Jack Schultz and Ian Baldwin concluded in an essay published in Science that injured poplar and maple trees release chemical signals that are picked up by healthy neighboring trees. The latter then activate defense mechanisms as though they themselves were hurt. The two scientists were roundly criticized at the time by the scientific community for what later became known as the “talking trees” notion.
In 1988 Dutch scientists showed that plants attacked by insects release chemical substances that summon help from other insects, who prey on the plant-eating ones. Certain plants activate a chemical alert when they are bitten by caterpillars, for example, attracting caterpillar-eating wasps to the endangered plants.
What Of It? I don’t want to get too Disney over this and start anthropomorphicizing everything around me, but this is fascinating stuff, not exactly surprising, but revelatory nonetheless - I remember reading a story years ago of a particularly spiritually-attuned logger who swore that he heard the trees being cut down by his crew in the Brazilian rainforest “screaming,” and of course there are folks who swear that talking to plants is the only way to encourage them to grow. Perhaps these people are not heretics after all, but simply more attuned prophets, the Dr. Dolittles of the plant kingdom. Perhaps I am one of them: if all else fails, I feel slightly less crazy for avoiding the pumpkin aisle at Thanksgiving.
I am Curious about the overlap of human and natural sciences, the space between folklore and fact and the idea of learning that an inanimate object has been animate all along.