The secret language of plants

By Peter Meredith | October 28, 2014

Plants communicate through their network of roots and can even create and respond to sounds. But experts are now asking – can they think, too?

The notion that plants are far smarter than we’ve thought is catching on in the scientific community. No longer can plants be seen as passive organisms, incapable of determining their fate.

It’s been shown that they are tireless collectors of information. They can sense gravity, light, temperature, soil quality and moisture content, the presence of micro-organisms, and signals from other plants. They combine this information with data about their own internal situation, assess it all and then act on it to maximise their chances of survival.

They are known to compete for limited resources, can distinguish kin from stranger, repel enemies, avoid rivals, and are territorial and far from static (most are so slow that they only appear to be static, but a few are known to make some of the fastest biological movements on the planet – the Venus flytrap can snap its trap shut in one-tenth of a second). And they’re ingenious at tricking animals into helping them reproduce.

As for communicating, it’s known that plants – from broad beans to forest trees – ‘talk’ with one another (their own kind and other species), and with creatures such as insects and other animals, on many levels and in many ways. They can do it using sound, smell, the emission of volatile chemicals, magnetism, electricity and light; and through their leaves as well as their roots.

All of which is leading some scientists to wonder whether plants are capable of doing something akin to thinking. Are they conscious? Might they be intelligent? In short, do they possess mechanisms comparable to the human brain and nervous system?

 

Read the full story in #123 of Australian Geographic (Nov-Dec 2014).