Leaf Brief

Front cover of What A Plant Knows by Daniel ChamovitzWhat a Plant Knows: A Field Guide to the Senses of Your Garden – and Beyond, Daniel Chamovitz (Oneworld 2012)

This is a brief but burgeoning book, covering a lot of science and a lot of scientific history. Plants stay in one place and don’t seem to suffer pain or discomfort, so they’re good experimental subjects, particularly for introverts. That’s why Charles Darwin devoted even more time to plants than he did to worms and barnacles. Chamovitz describes Darwin’s ingenious experiments and the even more ingenious experiments of the researchers that followed him. Over millions of years the world has set problems of survival for plants; in solving these problems, plants have set puzzles for scientists. How do plants know when to flower and prepare for winter? How do they resist attacks by insects? Or prey on insects? Or invite visits from pollinators? And how do they communicate with each other? The answers aren’t just chemical: they’re electrical too, as research on the world’s most famous carnivorous plant has proved:

Alexander Volkov and his colleagues at Oakwood University in Alabama first demonstrated that it is indeed electricity that causes the Venus flytrap to close. To test the model, they rigged up very fine electrodes and applied an electrical current to the open lobes of the trap. This made the trap close without any direct touch to its trigger hairs … (ch. 6, “What A Plant Remembers”, pp. 147-8)

Acoustics is also at work in the plant kingdom:

In a process known as buzz pollination, bumblebees stimulate a flower to release its pollen by rapidly vibrating their wing muscles without actually flapping their wings, leading to a high-frequency vibration. … In a similar vein, Roman Zweifel and Fabienne Zeugin from the University of Bern in Switzerland have reported ultrasonic vibrations emanating from pine and oak trees during a drought. These vibrations result from changes in the water content of the water-transporting xylem vessels. While these sounds are passive results of physical forces (in the same way that a rock crashing off a cliff makes a noise), perhaps these ultrasonic vibrations are used as a signal by other trees to prepare for dry conditions. (ch. 4, “What A Plant Hears”, pg. 107-8)

All of this is mathematical: a plant is a mechanism that processes not just sun, water and carbon-dioxide, but information from its environment too. But then sun, water and CO2 are all part of that information: sunlight signals plants as well as sustaining them. Its strength and duration are cues for the seasons and time of the day. So is its colour:

By the time John F. Kennedy was elected president, Warren L. Butler and his colleagues had demonstrated that a single photoreceptor in plants was responsible for both the red and far-red effects. They called this receptor “phytochrome”, meaning “plant colour”. In its simplest model, phytochrome is a light-activated switch. Red light activates phytochrome, turning it into a form primed to receive far-red light. Far-red light inactivates phytochrome, turning it into a form primed to receive red light. Ecologically, this makes a lot of sense. In nature, the last light a plant sees at the end of the day is far-red, and this signifies to the plant that it should “turn-off”. In the morning it sees red light and it wakes up. In this way a plant measures how long ago it last saw red light and adjusts its growth accordingly. (ch. 1, “What A Plant Sees”, pg. 21-2)

There’s an obvious analogy with a computer automatically turning itself off and on, which would make phytochrome and its associated chemicals a kind of hardware created by the software of the genes. Plants share some of that software with human beings: in one fascinating section, Chamovitz discusses the links between healthy plants and sick people:

The arabidopsis [A. thaliana, mustard plant] genome contains BRCA, CFTR, and several hundred other genes associated with human disease or impairment because they are essential for basic cellular biology. These important genes had already evolved 1.5 billion years ago in the single-celled organism that was the common evolutionary ancestor to both plants and animals. (ch. 4, “What A Plant Hears”, pg. 105)

What a Plant Knows stimulates human minds as it discusses plant senses. It’s one of the best briefest, or briefest best, books on science I’ve ever read, packing a lot of history and scientific information into six chapters. Plants don’t move much, but they’re a very lively topic and botany is a good way to understand and appreciate biology and scientific research better.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s