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What Do Plants Talk About?

Green San Miguel

By April Gaydos

Plants. They provide us with food, shelter, clothing, life-saving medicine, and sensory pleasure. They are so important to us that we count, classify, and study how they grow. We cultivate, coddle, and genetically modify them. We water, compost, and talk to them; move them around like furniture; prune, cut, and adore them; surround ourselves and are surrounded by them. They are so intrinsic to our lives that we think we know them. But what do we really know about these incredibly ancient, diverse, and successful life forms? For instance, can they synthesize information without a brain? Can they respond to danger without a voice or mobility? Are they solitary, reactionary soldiers of the field, or an army of sensory organisms capable of communicating with one another and others?

What Plants Talk About, Audubon’s Nature Matters film presentation taking place on Tuesday, May 17, explores what scientists are just beginning to learn about plants and their behavior. Plant “behavior” is still a controversial subject in the scientific world. However, in this film plant ecologist JC Cahill and his colleagues maintain that plants do behave in diverse ways and lead anything but solitary and sedentary lives. Through beautiful videography and using pioneering science sprinkled with doses of humor, Cahill and his colleagues make the case that plants eavesdrop on each other, communicate with their friends and foes, recognize their relatives, nurture their young, and even wage war, revealing a world where plants are as busy, responsive, and complex as humans.

“They’re actively engaging with the environment in which they live,” Cahill says, “… and respond to the nutrients, and the predators, and the herbivores that are around them.”

As food for thought on this topic, author Michael Pollan writes in a New Yorker article published during the same year this film was released (2013), “The controversy is less about the remarkable discoveries of recent plant science than about how to interpret and name them: whether behaviors observed in plants which look very much like learning, memory, decision-making, and intelligence deserve to be called by those terms or whether those words should be reserved exclusively for creatures with brains.”

Looking beyond the scientific semantics, it would seem that plants are smarter than we ever thought. And it’s possible that after viewing What Plants Talk About, you may never look at plants, flowers, seedlings, or trees in the same way again.


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