The Minds Of Plants
"Lilac Bush", Vincent van Gogh, 1889/Rawpixel (public domain)

The Minds Of Plants

Laura Ruggles
time 14 minutes

From the memories of flowers to the sociability of trees, the cognitive capacities of our vegetal cousins are all around us.

At first glance, the Cornish mallow (Lavatera cretica) is little more than an unprepossessing weed. It has pinkish flowers and broad, flat leaves that track sunlight throughout the day. However, it’s what the mallow does at night that has propelled this humble plant into the scientific spotlight. Hours before the dawn, it springs into action, turning its leaves to face the anticipated direction of the sunrise. The mallow seems to remember where and when the Sun has come up on previous days, and acts to make sure it can gather as much light energy as possible each morning. When scientists try to confuse mallows in their laboratories by swapping the location of the light source, the plants simply learn the new orientation.

What does it even mean to say that a mallow can learn and remember the location of the sunrise? The idea that plants can behave intelligently, let alone learn or form memories, was a fringe notion until quite recently. Memories are thought to be so fundamentally cognitive that some theorists argue that they’re a necessary and sufficient marker of whether an organism can do the most basic kinds of thinking. Surely memory requires a brain, and plants lack even the rudimentary nervous systems of bugs and worms.

However, over the past decade or so this view has been forcefully challenged. The mallow isn’t an anomaly. Plants are not simply organic, passive automata. We now know that they can sense and integrate information about dozens of different environmental variables, and that they use this knowledge to guide flexible, adaptive behaviour.

For example, plants can recognise whether nearby plants are kin or unrelated, and adjust their foraging strategies accordingly. The flower Impatiens pallida, also known as pale jewelweed, is one of several species that tends to devote a greater share of resources to growing leaves


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Also read:

The Subterranean Brain of the Forest
Daniel Mróz – drawing from the archives (no. 470–471/1954)

The Subterranean Brain of the Forest

How Trees Communicate
Maria Hawranek

Under the forest litter, trees build a network of connections that could be the envy of humans. It transports not only nutrients, but also information – about fires, droughts and environmental conditions. This speech of trees, and the relationships connecting them, were discovered by a certain persistent Canadian.

In one of the chapters of his book The Hidden Life of Trees, Peter Wohlleben gives a rather enigmatic description of how it was proved that various trees species can communicate. He doesn’t, however, refer us to the research. The secret behind that mysterious experiment is an extraordinary woman and her ground-breaking discoveries from 35 years ago, which permanently changed our perception of trees. They initiated a whole range of research regarding the symbiosis of trees and mushrooms at the Faculty of Forestry (University of British Columbia, Vancouver). On Polish Wikipedia, almost every other piece of information concerning mycorrhizal networks refers to the research co-authored by the Canadian. Recently she also inspired Richard Powers, author of the 2019 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Overstory. The writer used her biography to create the fictional character of the dendrologist Patricia Westerford.

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