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 Innovation/Global Risk

Plants Talk To One Another.  Are We Listening?

By Shlomo Maital


“Talking plants? You gotta be kidding!”

  A team of scientists at Israel’s Ben-Gurion University has discovered that plants can talk to one another.  An injured plant “communicates” to a healthy one, through its roots, and the healthy plants in turn relay the signals to neighboring plants, perhaps helping them to deal with stress in the future. 

  The research was published in PLoS (Public Library of Science One).  The researchers were headed by plant biologist Ariel Novoplansky.  In his experiment, he exposed five garden pea plants to drought conditions.  The stressed plant closed its leaves to prevent water loss.  Meanwhile, “its roots released signals that caused neighboring plants, not exposed to drought, to react as if they had been!  The title of the study was “Rumor Has It —  Relay Communication of Stress Cuts in Plants”.   

   According to the authors, “the results demonstrate the ability of plants and other ‘simple’ organisms to learn, remember and respond to environmental challenges in ways so far known in complex creatures with a central nervous system”, Novoplansky told Haaretz daily newspaper. 

  Apparently we’ve known about his phenomenon for years.  A paper published in Science in 1983, by Jack Schultz and Ian Baldwin, concluded that injured poplar and maple trees release ‘chemical signals that are picked up by healthy neighboring trees’, which then activate defense mechanisms as if they themselves were hurt. This study was ridiculed at the time, and called the ‘talking tree’ notion. It has since been vindicated.

  The amazing part of this research is that human beings have ‘mirror neurons’ in their brains, that enable us to feel ‘empathy’ – to feel what people near us are feeling, like pain, embarrassment, joy, etc.  Perhaps plants do too…through chemical emissions. Apparently evolution discovered that such plant ‘empathy’ helps plants survive to reproduce..and thus, ‘plant talk’ perpetuated itself. 

  I wonder if we should issue a blanket apology to all those who hug trees, and who talk to their plants.  And I wonder what trees and plants would say to humans, if they could speak to us?   Something like: “Listen humans, if you keep asphalting open land and cutting down forests, pretty soon, there won’t be any plants OR humans left.  Wise up!”  

Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital