Plant scientists are wondering if plants really communicate with each other (and with insects and other organisms) or if they just “eavesdrop” on each other’s “soliloquies.”
At stake in the debate are the definitions of communication (e.g., is it necessarily intentional, and is intentionality necessarily conscious intentionality?) and behavior (is it something that only animals do?).
What seems certain is that plants can and sometimes do share information. This article from Quanta summarizes recent research.
“It turns out almost every green plant that’s been studied releases its own cocktail of volatile chemicals, and many species register and respond to these plumes.”
[. . .]
“Just a few months ago, the plant signaling pioneer Ted Farmer of the University of Lausanne discovered an almost entirely unrecognized way that plants transmit information — with electrical pulses and a system of voltage-based signaling that is eerily reminiscent of the animal nervous system. ’It’s pretty spectacular what plants do,’ said Farmer. ‘The more I work on them, the more I’m amazed.’”
[. . .]
“Does this really happen among wild plants, or is it an unusual phenomenon induced by lab conditions?”
(One might speculate that it’s those yucky lab conditions that trigger some compulsion among plants to cooperate in finding a way out, like prisoners who need each other’s help in digging out an escape route. Rhizomes seeking release from the stratified prison.)
“[...] the science of plant talk is challenging long-held definitions of communication and behavior as the sole province of animals. Each discovery erodes what we thought we knew about what plants do and what they can do. To learn what else they’re capable of, we have to stop anthropomorphizing plants, said Baldwin, who is now at the Max Planck Institute in Germany, and try instead to think like them, to phytomorphize ourselves. Imagining what it’s like to be a plant, he said, will be the way to understand how and why they communicate — and make their secret lives a mystery no longer.” [emphasis added]
Phytomorphosis, yes. Becoming-plant is the way to understand how a seed turns into a tree, a wood grows from a field and defends itself against threats. Maybe even how a planet might regenerate itself after a climatic shock.
Somehow this seems a fitting thing to celebrate when people are gathering to sing songs like “The Holly and the Ivy” (that version or the standard one).
Happy Christmas and merry Yule to all who wish it. May the seed of empathic wisdom grow in all of us, crossing species boundaries as swiftly as it crosses boundaries between giver, gift, and recipient. And a happy new beginning for the coming year. (This blog will remain dormant over the next several days.)
See also Karban, Yang, and Edwards, “Volatile communication between plants that affects herbivory: a meta-analysis,” Ecology Letters 17.1 (2014), 44-52.