from The Imaginary Garden
written by Andrew Larsen
illustrated by Irene Luxbacher
Kids Can Press, 2009
I talk to my plants. I also talk to my cat, but she sometimes answers me. My plants do too, but it takes a little work on my part to know what they are telling me. Most of the time, I’m pretty sure it’s about being thirsty or drowning.
I’ve long heard that talking to your houseplants is good for them. Since we are in a symbiotic relationship regarding air-quality, they benefit from my exhale as much as I do from my inhale (their oxygen-laden transpiration). And close-up, I notice a brown leaf that was kinda yellow the day before or the little creepy-crawly that doesn’t belong. I notice the dryness or saturated soil condition or a new leaf-bud or (if I’m really lucky) a flower bud.
Turns out, there’s a whole science of plant psychology! Who even knew? Typically, a plant psychologist is called in when a plant (or crop) is ailing. They will examine environmental factors such as soil composition and condition and whether or not an insect invasion is present. They will check humidity levels, the heat source, and amount of available light. Once the physical factors are addressed, behavioral actions can be discussed. These tend to be nebulous.
Actually, most of the articles I read on plant psychology dealt with the psychological benefits plants provide to their care-takers, us. We gain a sense of purpose, relief from daily stressors, and a stronger connection to our physical world.
Scientists who study neuroscience and botany are concerned with the detection and analysis of electrical signals in plants. Many have noted even though plants don’t have “brains” like people or even most animals, (Did you know that jellyfish, sea-stars, clams, and some other underwater animals don’t even have a brain?) plants send electrical signals from leaves to roots and back again by using specialized cells called bundle-sheath cells. The electrical impulses are sent along these cells just like the nervous system of an animal.
All biological cells are electrical and even though plants don't have nerves, a plant’s cells are capable of generating electrical impulses called action potentials. It is this process that lets a Venus Flytrap catch its prey. Sensitive plants (Mimosa pudica) also respond to touch by quickly closing their leaves and drooping. They close up when shaken and when exposed to a breeze. Sensitive plants are subject experiments to test their reactions since they are fairly easy to note.
Monica Gagliano led one of the most famous studies in “plant neurobiology” in 2014. She wanted to discover if plants have memory. Here’s the description from the Discover Magazine blog (Aug 28, 2019). Gagliano’s team found that if you drop a potted Mimosa repeatedly, it will eventually stop folding its leaves. But if you switch to a different disturbance — a vigorous shake — the plant will fold its leaves again. But drop the same plant again a month later, and still nothing happens. No folding. The team concluded that the plant is smart enough to not only know the difference between a drop and a shake, but it’s also capable of learning that being dropped isn’t a threat worthy of folding up. They also took their claim a step further. The team claimed all of this is evidence that the plant can remember well into the future.
In 2016, Gagliano and her team experimented on pea plants trying to prove a Pavlovian response by timing a gust of wind from a fan with a plant’s movement toward a light source. She and her team claimed the plants made the connection between the gust and the light. They could learn and remember just like animals.
But when other scientists tried to replicate the experiments, they were unsuccessful.
Gagliano was undaunted. She’s now exploring the philosophy and moral implications of the sentience of plants. Can they anticipate future actions by remembering past actions? Do they have emotions? Can plants feel pain and pleasure?
Plants and animals all use electricity to transmit information. But plants don’t have neurons, so neurobiology, while the name sounds pretty intriguing, is really a misnomer. According to Gagliano, that doesn’t mean plants are not intelligent, or can’t learn or remember, or apply what they learn to future events, it’s just that plants and animals are different. They learn differently, they interact differently.
She calls her new field Plant Cognitive Ecology. She’s not saying that plants have consciousness, only if they do, what does it look like and what does that mean?
Good questions for me to ponder as I keep to my weekly watering schedule that always comes with a healthy dose of encouraging conversation.
Here’s a fascinating read: Peter Wohlleben. The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate – Discoveries from a Secret World. Greystone Books, 2016.
-—be curious! (and err on the side of kindness
to plants and people-italics added)
Robert Donohough, Director
Public Library of Youngstown and Mahoning County
1979 - 1989