From the Plant’s Point of View

My green thumb came only as a result of the mistakes I made while learning to see things from the plant’s point of view.

– H. Fred Ale

whiteyarrowbloomsclose3July2014

We know that plants do, in some way, sense stimuli and actively respond to it. Michael Pollan, in an article in The New Yorker in Dec. 2013 (quoted at length here), notes that while the field of plant neurobiology is a misnomer (as no one argues that plants have neurons or brains), plants “have analagous structures. … They have ways of taking all the sensory data they gather in their everyday lives … integrat[ing] it and then behav[ing] in an appropriate way in response. And they do this without brains, which, in a way, is what’s incredible about it, because we automatically assume you need a brain to process information.'”

Pollan characterises the proponents of plant neurobiology as those who “believe that we must stop regarding plants as passive objects—the mute, immobile furniture of our world—and begin to treat them as protagonists in their own dramas, highly skilled in the ways of contending in nature.” After all, he reminds us, “plants dominate every terrestrial environment, composing ninety-nine per cent of the biomass on earth. By comparison, humans and all the other animals are, in the words of one plant neurobiologist, ‘just traces.'” (Which reminds me of Michel Houellebecq‘s wonderful novel, The Map and the Territory.)

Studies have suggested that plant growth can be influenced by sound and that they respond to wind and touch; in fact, they have “between fifteen and twenty distinct senses, including analogues of our five: smell and taste (they sense and respond to chemicals in the air or on their bodies); sight (they react differently to various wavelengths of light as well as to shadow); touch (a vine or a root ‘knows’ when it encounters a solid object)” and, as recently discovered, sound: plants respond to the sounds that caterpillars make when eating plants by unleashing defenses against the predator. It’s been known for some time that some plants, when a predator such as a caterpillar attacks them, emit a chemical distress signal that the caterpillar’s predator, a predatory wasp, follows to the plant. And it may even be that plants have a kind of memory and can learn from experience (see the mimosa experiment mentioned here).

Whether plants exhibit what we would consider learning, consciousness, and intelligence (does intelligence require an organic or physical brain, or is it basically the ability to solve problems?), or whether it’s all done by chemical and electrical pathways is still in question, but it’s clear that they actively sense and respond to their surroundings.

Sometimes when I wander the garden, I like to think about what the plant senses:

 

Brush-footed butterflies, using their two tiny, bristly front legs to smell and taste the nectar —

 

fritillary on veronicastrum, July 2014
fritillary on veronicastrum, July 2014
swallowtail on veronicastrum, July 2013
swallowtail on veronicastrum, July 2013
monarch butterflies all over Joe Pye Weed, Aug. 2012
monarch butterflies all over Joe Pye Weed, Aug. 2012
butterfly on echinacea, today
butterfly on echinacea, today
monarch on buddleia, Aug. 2011
monarch on buddleia, Aug. 2011
American Copper butterfly on yarrow, Aug. 2013
American Copper butterfly on yarrow, Aug. 2013

giant bumblebees, large moths, and small birds coming in for a heavy landing —

 

bumblebee hovering over tomato flowers, today
bumblebee hovering over tomato flowers, today
bumblebee on veronicastrum, July 2014
bumblebee on veronicastrum, July 2014
bumblebees on Blue Bird aster, Oct 2013
bumblebees on Blue Bird aster, Oct 2013
bumblebee on dandelion, Oct 2013
bumblebee on dandelion, Oct 2013
hummingbird moth at buddleia, July 2013
hummingbird moth at buddleia, July 2013
hummingbird at crocosmia, July 2014
hummingbird at crocosmia, July 2014
bumblebee buzzing on anemone tormentosa,  Sept. 2013
bumblebee buzzing on anemone tormentosa, Sept. 2013
bumblebee in rhododendron, June 2014
bumblebee in rhododendron, June 2014

dragonflies, zooming past, then landing, lingering, mating —

 

mating Enallagma (American Bluets) damselflies, July 2014
mating Enallagma (American Bluets) damselflies, July 2014
dragonflies mating on old buddleia bloom, Aug. 2013
dragonflies mating on old buddleia bloom, Aug. 2013
meadowhawk on Joe Pye Weed, Aug. 2013
meadowhawk on Joe Pye Weed, Aug. 2013
damselfly on asclepias, July 2014
damselfly on asclepias, July 2014
meadowhawk, July 2014
meadowhawk, July 2014
Chromagrion Conditum (Aurora) damselfly on fern, June 2014
Chromagrion Conditum (Aurora) damselfly on fern, June 2014
dragonfly on bee balm, July 2013
dragonfly on bee balm, July 2013

frenetic pollinators dancing and crawling around, their legs, antennae, and proboscises tickling nooks and crannies —

 

bee with pollen on yarrow, today
bee with pollen on yarrow, today
bees and bugs in squash blossom, today
bees and bugs in squash blossom, today
Monarch (and Japanese beetle) on caryopteris, Sept. 2013
Monarch (and Japanese beetle) on caryopteris, Sept. 2013
bee or mimic on veronicastrum, July 2013
bee or mimic on veronicastrum, July 2013
bee (yellow jacket?) on fennel, Aug 2013
bee (yellow jacket?) on fennel, Aug 2013
Morning Glory with bee, July 2013
Morning Glory with bee, July 2013
Temnostoma alternans (hover flies) on anemone sylvestris, June 2014
Temnostoma alternans (hover flies) on anemone sylvestris, June 2014
Syrphid syrphini (genera unknown - hoverfly) on filipendula, July 2014
Syrphid syrphini (genera unknown – hoverfly) on filipendula, July 2014
wasps and bees in fennel, July 2013
wasps and bees in fennel, July 2013
great golden digger wasps and ants on 'Ice Ballet' asclepias, today
great golden digger wasps and ants on ‘Ice Ballet’ asclepias, today
honey bee and bumblebee on veronicastrum, today
honey bee and bumblebee on veronicastrum, today
meeting of bees (yellow jackets?) on angelica, Sept. 2013
meeting of bees (yellow jackets?) on angelica, Sept. 2013

grasshoppers, caterpillars and beetles munching and crunching on their foliage and flowers —

 

Typocerus (Longhorn beetle) on echinacea, today
Typocerus (Longhorn beetle) on echinacea, today
black swallowtail caterpillar in dill, Aug. 2011
black swallowtail caterpillar in dill, Aug. 2011
iridescent Anomala Orientalis (scarab beetle) and Toxomerus Geminatus fly on anemone, July 2013
iridescent Anomala Orientalis (scarab beetle) and Toxomerus Geminatus fly on anemone, July 2013
grasshopper on Autumn Joy sedum, Sept. 2011
grasshopper on Autumn Joy sedum, Sept. 2011
hickory tussock moth caterpillar on asclepias, Aug. 2013
hickory tussock moth caterpillar on asclepias, Aug. 2013
Spilosoma Virginica (Virginian Tiger Moth) caterpillar on chives, Sept. 2013
Spilosoma Virginica (Virginian Tiger Moth) caterpillar on chives, Sept. 2013
scarlet lily beetle on fritillaria leaves, June 2014
scarlet lily beetle on fritillaria leaves, June 2014
grasshopper on hydrangea, July 2013
grasshopper on hydrangea, July 2013
monarch caterpillars on asclepias, Sept. 2012
monarch caterpillars on asclepias, Sept. 2012
leaf hopper (Graphocephala) on crocosmia, July 2014
leaf hopper (Graphocephala) on crocosmia, July 2014
Euchaetes egle  (milkweed tussock moth) caterpillar on asclepias, Sept. 2012
Euchaetes egle (milkweed tussock moth) caterpillar on asclepias, Sept. 2012
Japanese beetle on grass, July 2014
Japanese beetle on grass, July 2014

heavy rain waterlogging them and bending them to the ground, or filling their channels, ducts, saucers and perforations with awaited refreshment —

 

perovskia (Russian sage) in rain, Sept. 2011
perovskia (Russian sage) in rain, Sept. 2011
nasturtium after rain, Oct. 2013
nasturtium after rain, Oct. 2013
back border after a deluge, yesterday
back border after a deluge, yesterday
dianthus in rain, June 2008
dianthus in rain, June 2008
Gold Standard hosta with raindrops, July 2011
Gold Standard hosta with raindrops, July 2011
Turkish Delight sedum with rain, May 2013
Turkish Delight sedum with rain, May 2013

me cutting their stems (gathering cut flowers), tearing off their fruits (harvesting), beheading them (removing spent blossoms), hacking off their limbs (pruning).

 

basil before harvest, Sept. 2013
basil before harvest, Sept. 2013
peach, Aug. 2012
peach, Aug. 2012
cut garden flowers and dogwood shrub stem, July 2013
cut garden flowers and dogwood shrub stems, July 2013
cucumber, Aug. 2012
cucumber, Aug. 2012
green beans and summer squash, Aug. 2013
green beans and summer squash, Aug. 2013
cherry tomatoea, Sept. 2013
cherry tomatoes, Sept. 2013

I talk to them, in a breezy conversational way, as I stroll, more for my sake than theirs, really.

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