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For Peat’s Sake: The Amazing and Somewhat Disturbing World of Plants

For Peats Sake LogoBy Marla J. Stelk, Policy Analyst, ASWM

I won’t lie – I am not an expert on plants – you will not find a barrage of Latin names and scientific verbiage in this blog or in any of my conversations. In fact, my freshman year of college in Florida, I took a plant botany class and we went out into the Everglades to identify various plants. I was so overwhelmed by the immense number and diversity of plants to identify that I thought my head was going to explode. Did you know that in the Everglades Park there are thirty-nine species of native orchids in addition to about 750 other kinds of native seed-bearing plants? I was much more comfortable when I transferred to a different college in Colorado where there were fewer species and I found them much easier to identify. Regardless, I am a huge fan of plants and am constantly amazed at their resiliency and intelligence. “Intelligence” you say? Yes – you heard it – according to Stefano Mancuso, one of the founders of the somewhat new field of “plant neurobiology,” mammals are not the only intelligent species in the world. Having a brain is not a prerequisite for being intelligent.

yournext080416I’ve been doing some reading about this fairly controversial area of study that explores the sensory adaptive behavior of plants and I have to say I find it fascinating. Although I have to admit, the thought of the implications if this theory were proven to be true makes me a wee bit uncomfortable – especially after having seen the remake of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (released in 1978) as a young child (and then the original that was produced in 1956). I remember being so terrified afterward that I was afraid to sleep in my own home for many nights afterward. My mother was, after all, an avid house plant keeper. And of course, “Little Shop of Horrors” came out in the movie theaters in 1986, which by all definitions was very different – a farce of a horror story that was intended to be funny. But after having experienced the trauma of watching “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” first, I did not necessarily find the humor in it.

invasion080416Of course, as is typical of human behavior, what often terrifies us the most also fascinates us the most. And I am truly intrigued by plant behavior. Mancuso defines intelligence as “the capacity and the ability to solve problems.” He argues that science has accepted that plants can breathe, yet they have no lungs. It is also accepted that plants can process nutrients, but without a stomach. So why is it so hard to accept that plants can think and reason without a brain? He points to a study that he and some colleagues of his performed that tested whether the plant mimosa pudica (yes, a Latin name – forgive me for including just one) could learn. To test their theory, they dropped a group of mimosa plants in a pot from a height of 10 centimeters.

Normally, this plant’s reflex reaction is to close its leaves immediately after being touched (which is pretty crazy to begin with) and indeed, this was the same observed reaction after being dropped. But after a few repetitions, the plants were able to discriminate between two different stimuli – they closed their leaves after being touched, but not after being dropped. This, they theorized, proved that the plants could learn. In fact, after leaving the plants undisturbed for forty days, the plants were still able to discriminate between the two different types of stimuli – which indicate a certain level of memory function as well.

Now this theory of plant intelligence isn’t necessarily new. In 1973, the book “The Secret Life of Plants” by authors Peter Tomkins and Christopher Bird was published creating a highly critical buzz in the scientific community. However, much of the science in the book was discredited after several attempts by well-respected scientists to replicate the experiments (offered as proof in the book) ultimately failed. However, in 2006, Mancuso and his colleagues (Eric D. Brenner, Rainer Stahlberg , Jorge Vivanco, Frantisek Balusa and Elizabeth Van Volkenburgh) renewed the debate when they published a controversial article in Trends in Plant Science titled “Plant neurobiology: an integrated view of plant signaling,” that explores three primary areas of study: 1) the potential for long-distance electrical signals to regulate plant responses; 2) the metabolic or signaling role that compounds such as acetylcholine, catecholamines, histamines, serotonin, dopamine, melatonin, GABA (g-aminobutyric acid) and glutamate  (also found in the nervous system of animals) play in plants; and 3) the neurotransmitter-like characteristics of the phytohormone auxin.

Personally, I find this all very exciting – science is, after all, the process of discovery through experiments and observation. We used to think the world was flat – and later, that the sun revolved around the earth. We know of course now that neither of these former beliefs is true. Fortunately throughout human history, we have constantly challenged our assumptions and beliefs, and continued to ask the questions “why?” and “what if?” We have sought, as my favorite science fiction series says, “to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, shopofhorror080416to boldly go where no one has gone before.” Certainly this quest has been pursued here on earth even more so than in space. We have learned that, For Peat’s Sake, critical minds work best when they remain open to new possibilities. As long as it doesn’t result in me getting eaten by an intelligent plant!

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2 Responses to For Peat’s Sake: The Amazing and Somewhat Disturbing World of Plants

  1. Bill Morgante says:

    Great blog! I too am amazed at the power of many plants that I consider quite smart. Skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) is exothermic — giving off heat in winter — how cool is that! What about all the medicinal plants like mint (Mentha sp..) that I have often use for an upset stomach!

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