The secret social life of plants
I always suspected my begonias were up to something. Maybe they knew more than they were letting on. Turns out they’ve been playing dumb for a long time: a recent study reveals that they can recognize and communicate with their relatives.
According to Susan Dudley of McMaster University, as reported by National Geographic on June 14, “plants have this kind of hidden but complicated social life.” The proof, apparently, is that they grow less aggressively, and therefore competitively, when potted with family members.
I guess when you share a pot with your sister, you don’t want her to complain to mom or dad that you’re grabbing all the sunshine. I know what my own sister is like and I would never hear the end of it: “Get your big fat branch out away from my pistil or I’ll knock out your corolla. You’re crowding my stamen and I’m not gonna take it anymore.”
It makes me wonder how plants relate to their mothers-in-law. “No matter what I do, she thinks I can’t do anything right. My capitulum isn’t big enough. My radicles are pathetic. And to top it all off, my taproot sucks!”
I can picture the jokes already. “What’s the difference between belladonna and a mother-in-law? One is a deadly poisonous perennial, and the other is just a plant.” Or “my mother-in-law asked me, ‘If you hate me so much, why do you have my picture on display?’ I told her, ‘seems to work against the aphids and the locusts.”
Turns out the family that grows together, thrives together. The National Geographic story points out that “if family members compete less with each other, the group will do better overall.” There’s less “dogwood eat dogwood”, as it were.
However, scientists report they don’t know how the heck plants recognize their family members. Hmmm… I know I get my nose and eyes from my dad. Isn’t it possible those leaf shapes and stem sizes are unmistakable? “Bob! You’re just as orbiculated as your good ole dad! I’d recognize that leaf pattern anywhere! Lemme see your internode! Yep, that’s your mom alright!”
Apparently we have fundamentally underestimated the communication abilities of plants all around. They are quite smart. In the human corporate world, white knights are companies recruited by others in distress to replace an unwanted takeover. Plants do the same thing: “some species react to attacks by leaf-munching insects by producing chemicals that attract wasps that prey on the unwanted bugs”, sez the National Geographic article.
Also, plants instinctively know to guard against inbreeding. This makes them brighter than the Pharaohs in ancient Egypt.
That’s scary stuff, even if they don’t eat us when we go to sleep…
(c) 2007 Dominique Millette, All rights reserved