Smarty Plants

From the ever-engaging Michael Pollan via The New Yorker: an essay on smarty plants.


Scientists have since found that the tips of plant roots, in addition to sensing gravity, moisture, light, pressure, and hardness, can also sense volume, nitrogen, phosphorus, salt, various toxins, microbes, and chemical signals from neighboring plants. Roots about to encounter an impenetrable obstacle or a toxic substance change course before they make contact with it. Roots can tell whether nearby roots are self or other and, if other, kin or stranger. Normally, plants compete for root space with strangers, but, when researchers put four closely related Great Lakes sea-rocket plants (Cakile edentula) in the same pot, the plants restrained their usual competitive behaviors and shared resources.

Somehow, a plant gathers and integrates all this information about its environment, and then “decides”—some scientists deploy the quotation marks, indicating metaphor at work; others drop them—in precisely what direction to deploy its roots or its leaves. Once the definition of “behavior” expands to include such things as a shift in the trajectory of a root, a reallocation of resources, or the emission of a powerful chemical, plants begin to look like much more active agents, responding to environmental cues in ways more subtle or adaptive than the word “instinct” would suggest. “Plants perceive competitors and grow away from them,” Rick Karban, a plant ecologist at U.C. Davis, explained, when I asked him for an example of plant decision-making. “They are more leery of actual vegetation than they are of inanimate objects, and they respond to potential competitors before actually being shaded by them.” These are sophisticated behaviors, but, like most plant behaviors, to an animal they’re either invisible or really, really slow.