From the “Ents”, tree-like creatures, created by J.R.R. Tolkien for his Middle Earth fantasy world, to the “Womping Tree” of Harry Potter fame, to “Groot” of the science fiction thriller/comedy “Guardians of the Galaxy”, and you can’t forget “Audrey” from The Little Shop of Horrors, talking plants, plants that communicate between themselves and others, have fascinated fiction enthusiasts and hardcore realists alike .
Contrary to the long-held idea that plants are silent, stoic, and uncommunicative, recent research has made it clear that many species have lively and informative conversations with each another. Scientists have revealed that plants communicate through the air, by releasing odorous chemicals called volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and through the soil, by secreting chemicals for transport along thread-like networks formed by soil fungi. This is the plants version of “wireless communication” and they’re having more than gossip sessions: these signals warn of the many dangers facing plants. No longer can we call reclusive individuals, wall flowers, because now we know plants have active social lives.
Plants aren’t limited to conversations between themselves. It turns out that plants can also summon help from the animal kingdom, when under attack — when corn plants (Maize) or tobacco plants are munched on by caterpillars, they can give off an odor that attracts caterpillar-eating wasps! A chemical in the armyworm’s drool triggers the leaves of corn and tobacco seedlings to scream for protection and aide from armyworm predators. If you’re a corn or tobacco farmer, you might want to start using this trick to defend your crop against aphids.
There’s also evidence that plant-eating insects are intercepting the chemical communications of their prey. Ted Farmer, noted researcher from the Department of Plant Molecular Biology, University of Lausanne, Biophore, Lausanne, Switzerland,who found evidence of an electrical nervous system in plants, has also found evidence that insects actively try to minimize the chemical defenses of the plants they feed upon. (Read his paper, Differential gene expression in response to mechanical wounding and insect feeding in Arabidopsis.) Ants, microbes, moths, even hummingbirds and tortoises (Farmer scientifically verified their responses) all detect and react to these blasts of plant defensive chemicals.
This is what we know about plant communication:
- Plants can call for help. When you smell the sweet odor of cut grass or cut flowers you are really smelling the plants “distress call”. The plant is calling in help from insects that will eat the insects currently feeding off of it. The grass or flower treats the lawnmower or scissors as it would a hungry insect chewing its body parts.
- Plants listen in to other plants private conversations. They evesdrop! Plants can pick up chemical signals from unrelated, plants in their surrounding area. When they pick up a strangers’ chemical “SOS”, they start to produce their own defensive mechanisms pro-actively.
- Plants will defend their home territory. Plants are competitive organisms. They compete for sunlight, water, and nutrients. Certain species of plants can emit chemicals into the soil that will kill foreign plant species. Then there are plants that can nullify the effects of these toxic emissions with their own chemical concoctions, effectively protecting themselves and other unrelated plants close by.
- Plants can recognize their relatives and siblings. They tend to recognize and support their relatives. They become less competitive for resources when in close proximity to their own family members, sharing rather than hogging available resources, promoting the health of their species. One for all and all for one.
- Plants can communicate, not only with insects, but with mammals. Plants use their communication skills to attract animals that bring them beneficial help. Whether its food they need or defense from enemies, plants are not shy when it comes to asking for “Help”. The carnivorous, Pitcher Plant, is able to communicate acoustically with bats making it easy for bats to find them and deposit guano into the plant, providing nourishment.
So, go ahead, talk to your plants. Find out whats bugging them, then call a plant pest professional to save the day!