When you take a bite of a delicious salad or pull a weed from your backyard, you probably don’t give much thought to it’s “brain”. But there’s a growing amount of research suggesting that plants are far more than a source of nutrition, a decorative compliment to your landscape, or, in some cases, an eyesore. This research might lead to all of us looking at plants in a whole new light. So what’s the story with “plant intelligence”?
Some evidence suggests plants can find water sources by detecting the vibrations of pipes. Researchers conducted a study investigating the pea plant, which, they believe, can locate water thanks to what can best be described as a vegetative sense of “hearing.” According to the study, the plant senses the vibrations, zeroes in on the exact location of the moisture, and sends its roots to that area.
Researchers even found that the plant can distinguish the actual sound of water running to a pipe from a recording.1
In another study, researchers looked into the possibility of plants learning to react to a certain stimulus. They placed a group of seedlings near a Y-shaped maze. The researchers placed a light source, and a small fan, at the end of one branch of the “Y.” There was nothing at the end of the other branch. The seedlings were then placed in front of another Y-shaped maze. This time, they placed the light source at the end of one branch and the fan at the end of the other.
According to the results, the plants grew toward the light/fan portion of the Y in the first test. But when the light and fan were separated, the seedlings grew toward the fan, rather than the light. This was unexpected since plants will typically move toward light, which they use as a food source. The researchers came to the conclusion that the seedlings actually associated the current of air with food, and grew toward the fan as a result.2
Can Plants Communicate?
Another aspect of plant intelligence gaining scientific attention is determining whether or not plants communicate with each other. And evidence is building that they can not only warn other plants of potential dangers, but they can, in a way, even “see” their neighbors and “smell” their enemies.
But that’s not all.
According to these same researchers, plants can recall previous weather conditions, previous attacks by animals, and also use animals to help defend themselves.3
So how do they do all of this? Most of the exact mechanisms aren’t known, but scientists believe they have a general idea of how plants can do these incredible things.
For example, a plant known as Arabidopsis thaliana, known more commonly as the mouse-ear cress or thale, can sense when predators, such as caterpillars, are mounting an attack. The plant then releases chemicals and oils to repel them.4
Some researchers even believe that plants communicate, and, in some instances, even work together to ensure their survival. The key to this communication is a type of fungus known as mycorrhizal fungi. This fungus lives on the roots of many forest trees. In fact, these trees can’t survive without it. The reason is they have a hard time getting to nutrients hidden deep in soil.
They also appear to use this mycorrhizal fungi “network” to warn each other of insect attacks. When one tree is under siege, it sends chemicals through fungi fibers located just underneath the soil. The fungi is also dispensed through the air. When other trees receive the “message,” they produce chemicals that repel attacks. Researchers also think that different species of trees distribute this fungus among each other so they can live.5
Plant intelligence and consciousness may even extend to memory regarding previous weather conditions. A process known as vernalization is where a plant has to be exposed to cold before it will produce flowers in springtime. The plant, in essence, “memorizes” very cold weather. This allows it to distinguish from spring and autumn.6
Researchers found that the aforementioned A. thaliana plant contains a gene known as FLC (flowering locus C). This gene produces a chemical that stops the plant from blooming. But the plant possesses other genes that know how long it’s been since the plant experienced cold. When spring arrives, these other genes inhibit FLC, allowing the flowers to bloom.7
A Final Word on Plant Intelligence
Plant intelligence seems to exist in a variety of ways. Now, do they experience emotions, or pain? That would be a stretch. But plants are more than just something to be ignored as simply part of the scenery, or a tasty addition to our diet. They are actually fascinating, living things that deserve not only our attention, but our respect, as well.
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