Sarah Coles


Do Plants Think?

I read an article in the New Scientist (Smarty Plants, 6 December 2014) about the intelligence of plants by Anil Anathaswamy.  (I had already explored this concept in my book LIFE, THE UNIVERSE AND GARDENING.)  Plants respond to touch – mimosa pudica quickly, but others more slowly, heavens a lot more slowly – they respond to light and shade, they can hear (we saw orchids swaying to music in Thailand, yes, I am not joking), they can smell and communicate.  ‘They think, they react, they remember.’

Now it’s being explored scientifically.  With plants, ‘you get into this space where you are interacting with another organism that functions completely differently.’  Aristotle put plants in the lowest category of the rungs of life, but today after centuries of neglect, plant neurobiology has come into its own.

Where is the ‘brain’ of the plant?  In the root, the phloem, the vascular tissue used to transport nutrients but also electrical signals and more.  (Darwin guessed this).  ‘There is a kind of brain chauvinism. We think that a brain is something that is absolutely needed to have intelligence.’  Not so.   Down there in the root is the nerve centre of the plant.  This is what neurobiology studies. There is now the Society of Plant Signalling and Behaviour.  It’s also controversial stuff.

Intelligence?  What is it?  There are so many definitions.  At its basic, it may simply be awareness, or consciousness – (the purpose of meditation, what we try to be refined into).

Plants when cut produce ethylene – this may be the equivalent of a scream, and pain reliever.  Ethylene is used, among other things, as an anaesthetic by humans.  (Poor vegans, what a dilemma!  What can they eat without guilt?).

If we listen, if we stay aware, we already know all this.  I step down to the greenhouse and slide open the door.  Sudden silence, as if everything inside is playing Grandmother’s Footsteps and frozen its activities.  There’s such a sense of presence, in the bulbs rising unseen in the pots, the yuccas the succulents the lemon scented verbena, all keeping each other warm, and in the ivy plain and variegated that has  crawled inside the roof, festooning the staging.  Oddly thrilling.  Our awareness of each other.  We know each other.

And what about the intelligence of other things, I wonder?  If it can be sited in roots, it might lie in all sort of places.  In the rushing wind.  I walk back along the old drove way above Itchen Abbas where I tread on leaves like a complex jigsaw.  The fitful sun alights on a distant copse then fades, on a fallen tree, on ivy and moss, it’s all there, and we communicate.


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