I have borrowed the first half of this title from Michael Pollan’s book The Botany of Desire and the second half is my ramblings. Pollan sees the world as if we are manipulated by plants for their survival rather than we use them for ourselves. He cites examples of tulip bulbs, potatoes, apple and marijuana, to demonstrate that it is plants that trick us by their charms, taste and intoxication to help them in their survival.
First, a bit of history of tulip and potato. Tulip was growing wild in central Asia and was first cultivated by the Ottoman Turks as early as 1,000 years ago. Ottoman sultans were so obsessed with tulips that their 18th century is called Tulip Era. Then the Dutch became obsessed with the beauty of tulips and became masters of large scale bulb production after it had been stolen from Turkey and imported in the 16th century CE.
Potato was growing wild in South America. It was initially domesticated by ancestors of Incas over 70 thousand years ago in the region of the present Peru. It was imported to Europe by the Spanish in the 16 century to feed its army. The Portuguese imported potato to India in the early 17th century and planted in Surat. They called it “Batata”. The British introduced potato to Bengal by the end of the 18th century. They called it “Alu”. Soon it was cultivated in northeast India including Manipur.
Plants are living beings like animals except that they cannot move or run away by lifting their roots. They depend on human beings for travel and on animals such as bees for reproduction. In college in Bombay, one day while I was attending the Catholic religious class at St Xavier’s, I was debating with the Spanish Father about vegetarianism and against eating meat. He pointed out that plants are living things just like animals. They also might feel pain.
I couldn’t think of plants having pain as they have no nervous system or a brain. The Vegetable Rights Militant Movement (VRMM) says a number of studies prove plants suffer pain. I have not read any evidence of any respectable study that proves plant has pain.
Members of VRMM have done a lot of militant activities to prevent cruelty to plants like chaining themselves to hay bailers, corn huskers to voice their message that it is illegal to use these torture devices as plants suffer unbearable pain. They often stage sit-ins at supermarkets, shouting “veggie-killer” to anyone who buys vegetables. They claim vegetables have been victims all over the world in the recorded human history. Once people began farming crops they sold their souls to the god of violence . They think the smell of freshly-cut grass is actually a chemical distress call to beg nearby living things to save them from attack by lawnmower blades.
Michael Pollan says this would be comforting to people who speak to plants [like Prince Charles] or those who play music [violin, sitar etc] for plants to help them grow, that there is a discipline called “plant neurobiology”, whose new research in this field shows plants have analogous structures to animal nervous system. They have ways of taking all the sensory data they gather in their everyday lives. They integrate the data and then behave appropriately in response. And they do this without brains, which in a way is what’s incredible about it. We automatically assume one needs a brain to process information.
They have some sort of ears. Researchers have played a recording to plants of a terrifying sound of a caterpillar munching on a leaf and plants react, according to Pollan. They then secrete defensive chemicals even though it isn’t really threatened with a live caterpillar. Mancuso and Viola write in their book ‘Brilliant Green – The Surprising History of Science’ that plants don’t just react to threats and opportunities, but must decide how far to react.
Scientists have observed that roots of plants do not flounder randomly but search for water and nutrients, and are capable of “seeing” an obstacle before they hit it and alter its course. They have senses for detecting gravity, measuring humidity and sensing electromagnetic fields. They have complex communicating systems and share a lot of information with neighbouring plants or with other organisms such as insects or other animals. The most well known is ‘chemical volatiles’ ie some plants smell so good and others awful. They also communicate via electrical signals and even vibrations.
Pollan thinks psychoactive plants eg Indian ganja (cannabis), and soma (amanita muscaria) – a hallucinogenic mushroom (fungus), have for years exploited human consciousness, deserving of humankind’s worshipful care. The Vedic people, the Greek and early Christians were tricked into using them because of their hunger for transcendence. He says the natural history of religion shows that the human experience of the divine has deep roots in psychoactive plants and fungi. He cautions: this is not to diminish anyone’s religious beliefs.
From my own experience, plants do seem to remember stresses and events. A few years ago I had clover weeds in my lawn. I mowed the leaves. Next year they stopped growing that tall. So they escaped my lawn mower blades and grew profusely. They are conscious of where they are in space and react appropriately. They respond to space flights and can grow in zero gravity.
They know when they want. Once I bought a mature sunflower plant with blooms from the garden centre. I planted it in my garden with flowers facing west to see if they turned east with the sun. Nothing happened. I was quite disappointed, destroying kind of childhood hedonism that compared this beautiful yellow flower Numitlei (Manipuri) to a flirtatious girl. I browsed the internet: once the sunflower is pollinated and forms the seed, it ceases tracking the sun. The flower buds have special cells at the bases that shrink or swell as they absorb water. They must have an internal clock like human circadian rhythm. Nobody knows why they do this.
Some plant species always turn their leaves to face the sun for photosynthesis by another process that is controlled by a specialised organ called pulvinus – the swollen part of the petiole (the stalk that attaches the leaf blade to the stem). It contains motor cells that generate mechanical forces to change the turgor in the pulvinus to turn the petiole. Recently, an international team of scientists have been able to provide definitive insights into the driving force why plants grow towards the sun. It is due to the plant hormone auxin.
To my question of whether plants have intelligence, some scientists insist they have. They can sense, learn, remember and even react in ways that humans could not sense. Whether it is intelligence or learning is a view point. Plants do have problem solving ability, which I call Intelligence.
As human beings dress up in beautiful coloured dresses and spray perfumes to attract the opposite sex, plants produce beautiful colours and fragrance or, provide snacks as nectar to trick insects for pollination and reproduction. They also produce different chemicals to ward of insects they don’t like. New research shows that some plant are choosy in attracting insects they like and they can differentiate between them. They only germinate their pollen for the best suitor.
The cutting age of science in what I call plant intelligence, is their ability to adapt to the environment as animals do. A plant Pinguicula casbitoama found only on Mount Casabito in the Dominican Republic is one of the rarest carnivorous plants on the planet that eats only insects for its food to cope with its harsh environment. Many carnivorous plants prey on animals , including from insects to mice, even birds.
The most common carnivore plant is Venus flytrap. It’s small and you can buy it as indoor plant in a small pot. Once I bought one to test how intelligent it is. I threw a dead fly in one of its open traps (leaves). Nothing happened. It seemed Venus knew it was not alive and did not want to waste its time and energy, like trying to digest a dead twig. It has sensory organs to know a live insect must be running about. It has also mechanism to let small insect that is not worth bothering about, to escape from the trap. A suitable prey that is trapped will stimulate plant’s digestive juice by its frightened movements. It takes several days to digest the soft parts and when it is complete the trap opens with the outer horny skeleton, which will be blown over. I would think that’s intelligence.
An alarming scientific publication in the Journal of Science in 2015, says the long suspected sixth mass extinction of Earth’s wildlife is “already under way,” since Earth has supported life for 3.5 billion years. Natural disasters have triggered five mass extinctions in the past 500 million years, each of which wiped out 50-90% species on our planet. The most recent we know, occurred about 65 million years ago, when an asteroid wiped out dinosaurs, and that led to the appearance of mammals. We need to preserve plant life. if plants are wiped out humans would not last more than a few weeks.