So What’s a Plant Know?
November 6th, 2012
I’m fascinated by the findings in a new book from Israeli bioscientist Daniel Chamovitz that shows how plants “know” a whole lot more than we think they do.
In “What a Plant Knows” (Scientific American, $23, www.whataplantknows.com), Chamovitz makes the case that plants lead “rich, sensual lives” and that they’re more like people than we realize.
He says plants send signals to each other, they respond to smells, they “see” lights and colors, and they even have memories. I’ve written a column on the scientific details behind it all, if you’re interested in that.
But Chamovitz’s observations got me to wondering… if plants are more aware than we think, what do they “think” about us and some of the crazy stuff that goes on in a typical garden?
For a long time, I’ve suspected that plants have the ability to conspire against gardeners.
Some of them are so stubborn (you know who I’m talking about, Mrs. Wisteria) that they just aren’t going to reward us with a bloom until they’re good and ready.
Others are so finicky they won’t thrive until we move them for the fifth time into just the right spot.
Have mountain laurels all agreed to sacrifice themselves in home gardens until we let them alone in the woods?
If plants are so good at communicating like Chamovitz says, why don’t they just tell us what they want? That’d make it a lot easier on everyone. They could at least spell out their demands in the dirt, kind of like Mr. Ed used to do with his hooves.
I also wonder if plants have their own personality.
I can picture cannas being cocky, ‘Incrediball’ hydrangeas being braggarts, orchids being divas, dahlias being loudmouths and pansies being, well, pansies.
And what do they think of us?
Do they quiver with fear when they see us coming out of the garage with pruners in hand? Or worse yet, when the man of the house comes toting his chainsaw?
Do they feel slighted when we give only compost while the neighbor feeds his plants with $20 bottles of designer Jack Daniels fertilizer?
Do they cry for justice when we go away for a few days in the middle of a July heat wave and fail to give them water while paying a sitter to watch the dog?
Do they think it’s abuse when we spray poinsettias with gold paint and glitter and dye orchids a nature-offending blue?
Are they hurt when we divide and give away (or toss) clumps of their brother and sister perennials?
Are edibles proud or horrified when we pick and eat them? I guess that one could go either way.
How about their hearing? What if the try-hard-but-mediocre verbena heard me talking about switching to petunias next year? Will the hydrangeas knock off their afternoon wilting if I give them a pep talk? Will the peppers hurry up and get ripe if I threaten to play the same Barry Manilow song over and over again?
Do the unsold plants at the garden center feel spurned when they see us spending a fortune on lawn products to keep that boring plant alive instead of picking them? Do they think, “What do we have to do to impress?”
Since plants “see” light and colors, are they secretly making fun of my motley garden outfit?
Since they “smell,” I hope they aren’t offended at what’s emanating from me after a few hours of weeding in the 90-degree heat.
And since they have a memory, are the tomatoes going to whip themselves into shape next year when they remember what I did to the darned diseased ones this year? Are the beans going to protest next summer because I let the groundhogs nearly munch them into extinction this summer?
Interesting questions. I wish I spoke hortiguese to find the answers.
One thing I do know, though. When it comes to survival instincts and overall smarts and ability to thrive amid any human insult, there’s a clear winner in the plant world.
It’s called a weed.
I wish some of them really could understand what I’m saying about them.