The Secret Life of Plants

When we think of plants, most of us think of static green things that sit in their soil and don't do much more than photosynthesize. But there is a whole other side to these organisms. Science is showing plants can do everything from ward off insects and other predators, to recognize and communicate with their own relatives.

'The Happening' Ain't Happening'
 In M. Night Shyamalan's 2008 film, 'The Happening,' [Movie spoiler alert! Skip to the next alert if you want to avoid spoilage of the plot... and the movie's premise!]...
...a nursery owner surmises that plants are communicating with humans, and what they're telling us is 'go away and stop killing us.' They are "saying" this by releasing neurotoxins that cause humans to override their sense of self-preservation and kill themselves. The nursery owner is actually citing an example of plant communication that is well-known in the field of plant physiology. The work he's talking about showed that when certain plants (like tobacco or corn) are infested with caterpillars, they release a pheromone that attracts wasps, which will fly over and eat the plant-devouring caterpillars. But while there's obviously some truth to the nursery owner's claims, it's a far cry from killer talking trees.

Green Sibling Rivalry
[Movie spoilage done - keep reading here:] Back in the real world, at Penn State, researchers have shown that some plants only fight for food when they are growing near non-relatives. If its neighbor is a sibling or other relative, it will respectfully withhold its roots to allow its kin to get as many nutrients as it can from the soil. It turns out that these plants can communicate with their neighbors by sensing and sending out chemical compounds underground - directly from their roots.

Plant Prey
And one last case of plant point/counter-point: Certain types of plants, such as some parasitic weeds, have the ability to "sniff' their environment to determine when they are close to a neighboring plant that they can successfully feed off of. Check out this sniffing ability in a dodder weed 'stalking' its prey - an unsuspecting tomato plant.

So while those trees and plants outside your window may look like they are just sitting there doing nothing, if you have the right tools to 'listen' to them, you'll find there's a whole secret life they are leading right in front of your unsuspecting eyes. And while movies like 'The Happening' may be stretching things a bit, we should still remember how much our green, leafy friends have to offer us, whether we're listening or not.

User Comments:

What do you think about the claims for communication between humans and plants made in the 1973 book The Secret Life of Plants. I cannot find any critical reviews. I am very sceptical because it sounds like parapsychology, but I would like to know what you hear from scientists and think about it yourself. Thanks!

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