Learning the Language of Plants

The last couple of months have brought us some interesting insights into the language of plants. While there isn’t consensus regarding the proper terms to use – speech, hearing, memory, intelligence – there is growing consensus that plants communicate with each other, and that such communication allows plants to share resources and respond to dangers being experienced by their neighbors.

Takepart reports on research performed at the University of Missouri that found plants can detect via sound that a neighbor plant is being eaten by a caterpillar and respond by giving off a chemical that the caterpillar’s find off putting.

To the Best of Our Knowledge did an hour long segment on “The Secret Language of Plants” May 11, 2014.  It’s well worth a listen as ecologist Suzanne Simard, plant geneticist Daniel Chamovitz, anthropologist Jeremy Narby, and biologist Robin Wall Kimmerer take a look at the amazing world of plants from different angles.

We’re only at the very beginning of understanding how plants collaborate and build communities of support, perhaps even learning and sharing information across generations. The sad thing is that much of this knowledge has been lost as we actively sought to suppress cultures that we saw as backwards, dismissing indigenous knowledge in lieu of our enlightened, scientific knowledge. I’ve very much appreciated following Robin Wall Kimmerer through her journey of bringing her scientific expertise as a biologist into conversation with her heritage of indigenous knowledge, as shared in her book Braiding Sweetgrass.

What does it mean to have a green thumb? It can mean knowing how to bring the right mixes of fertilizer, herbicide, and pesticide additives together at the right times to cultivate plants into production and foil predators. Or it can mean building up a healthy soil and diverse ecosystem that enables plants to support each other. That is, we can grow plants addicted to our chemicals, or nurture an environment that fosters a healthy plant community. I have no doubt which one is healthier for us and the planet, which is more sustainable, which is more consistent with Shalom. Here’s to the intelligence of plants and a healthier community!



About mwolske

I'm a Senior Research Scientist in Community Informatics at the Graduate School of Library and Information Science, University of Illinois.
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