Clever Plants

On the evening when the Federal Elections results showed a clear winner for the Coalition I have to admit I went to bed in tears. I got up the next morning in a rage and joined Extinction Rebellion, vowing to get arrested in necessary. How else to cope with three more years of pignoramuses in power; how else to deal with this disaster for the environment, for refugees, for the poor, for our sanity?

In search of solace I buried my head in books and recalled a review I was asked to write for Matthew Hall’s book Plants as Persons way back in 2011. It was one of the first publications on plant intelligence and I remember writing at the end of the review, “This is a book I wish I had written.” Since then, not only has the idea of plants as intelligent, ‘thinking’ beings become almost commonplace but the notion that we humans would benefit from becoming more ‘plantlike’ in our thinking has gathered force. Could I discover some modicum of hope hiding in the foliage in the garden?


What might it mean to think like a plant? Can we possibly know what and how a plant thinks? It seems easier to imagine how a cat or elephant or even a spider thinks, even though we may be accused of anthropomorphism. But a plant? What, I wonder might my Daphne be thinking today as it struggles to open buds in the bitter wind and squally rain. Is it quietly cursing the weather as much as I am?


On warm sunny days it’s so much easier to imagine a plant’s state of mind as it lifts its leaves or flowers aloft and seems to stretch out to welcome the bees.


There are few activities more pleasurable than sitting watching a peaceful plant embedded in the soil, quietly drinking up water and opening itself to the elements. Even though it is not mobile it is dynamic, connected and always changing and adapting in relation to the world in which it grows. Not a bad way to be, I think. Perhaps our politicians could be persuaded to contemplate plants.

Fat chance!

Still, it’s worth exploring how our world might look if we were able to think the way a plant develops. Have ideas that could grow, transform themselves and even die away. First, we would have to ask the plants: What do you have to teach me? I imagine putting this question to my favorite Grevillea and hearing it reply, that the essential qualities of life are unfolding, growing, transforming, creating; all of which are enlivening.


This is not the sort of growth our government talks about. The capitalist, free-market kind of growth is unlimited and supposedly the key to a ‘healthy’ economy. Nowhere in the garden or in the bush does unlimited growth appear and if it did it certainly wouldn’t be healthy. Rather, there is limited growth embedded in a context, regulated by death and decay. This is a healthy life process. It is these animate processes that should be our teachers. We need these qualities of the living world to become part of a thinking process informed by the characteristics exhibited by life itself. Unfortunately, our government sees nature as a resource to be used, supposedly for human benefit. Carolyn Merchant in The Death of Nature summarizes this process:

“The removal of animistic, organic assumptions about the cosmos constituted the death of nature – the most far-reaching effect of the Scientific Revolution. Because nature was now viewed as a system of dead, inert particles moved by external, rather than inherent forces, the mechanical framework itself could legitimate the manipulation of nature. Moreover, as a conceptual framework, the mechanical world order has associated with it a framework of values based on power, fully compatible with the directions taken by commercial capitalism” (1983, p.193).

So here we are apparently living within a ‘natural’ world that has no ‘inside’ as it were, no volition, no intelligence, no selfhood. No wonder we have ended up in a culture of separation and isolation. Yet, there is a wealth of evidence that plants do not exist in isolation. The plant’s life unfolds as it grows out into, and connects, with the world in such as way that the world supports its development.

How can we humans develop a more living relation to the world? Goethe suggests that, “if we want to behold nature in a living way, we must follow her example and become as mobile and malleable as nature herself” (2002, p. 56).

First, for all those skeptics who pooh-pooh the idea of plant sentience, there is ample evidence of sensation, signaling, intelligence and even brains in plants. As far back as 1824 Henri Dutrochet proposed the idea that the growth responses of plants to light was a behavioral responseand not simply a mechanical movement. Further experimentation proved this and laid the groundwork for Charles Darwin’s investigation into the tropic movement of plants. In his Power of Movement in Plants (1880) Darwin describes plant movement and the capacity of plants to sense and choose. He attributed brain-like characteristics to the plant’s root-tip, writing, “ It is hardly an exaggeration to say that the tip of the radicle … acts like the brain of one of the lower animals (1880, p. 573). Matthew Hall describes how “Darwin recognized the possibility that plants could receive impressions of the environment. Although he was not aware how, it was clear that plants were able to communicate with the environment, and the sensory parts had the means to communicate this information on the state of the environment to other parts of the plant” (2011, p.140).

We now know a great deal more about how plants function. Touch is the most well-known sense in plants and with their extreme sensitivity to touch plants are able “to explore, with an animal-like curiosity, their environment in a continual search for water and solutes” (2006, p. vi). Their phototropic response to light also shows they are able to perceive light and work out whether they are likely to be shaded by other plants in the future. This information enables them to make decisions about future branching and flowering behavior.

In 2002 Anthony Trewavas proposed that plants possessed intelligence, defined as the possession of “Adaptively variable behavior within the lifetime of the individual.” Trewavas describes how the growth and development of plant organs is “adaptively variable”: it changes according to environment conditions in order to maximize fitness. This ability to alter the phenotype is, by definition, intelligent. Perception, awareness and active assessment are elements in the behavioral repertoire of plants, directed at increasing their well-being by acquiring resources and maximizing reproduction. By adjusting to environmental changes, plants show they are capable of basic decision making, problem solving and reasoning.

Studies in what is now known as plant neurobiology suggest, “that plants may actually have thousands of brain-like entities that are involved in the emergence of intelligent behavior. These entities are a type of tissue known as meristems. Current theories suggest that the meristematic tissue, located at the tips of roots and shoots, combined with the vascular strands capable of complex molecular and electrical signaling, may well comprise the plant equivalent of the nervous/neuronal system” (Hall, 2011, p.147).

There is much, much more to this research that I could summarize but I’m more interested in thinking about the possibilities that open up for us if we can only find the humility to learn from the plant world that for so long we have denigrated as passive, immobile and lacking in mental capacity. In Plant-Thinking: A Philosophy of vegetal Life, Michael Marder compiles a list of attributes that he refers to as offshoots of plant thinking, some of which I’ll attempt to summarize. They all have implications for gardening that I will explore in a later post.

Ethically, we can no longer treat vegetal life as a mere object as it is also an agent, one deserving of respect.  Marder writes: “vegetal life enlivens plants, as well as, in different ways, animals and human beings; the common life at its barest, is in equal measure an end-in-itself and a source of vitality for-us. An offense against vegetal life harms both the plants we destroy and something of the vegetal being in us” (p.182). From this perspective the accelerated rate of land clearing that is occurring in Australia under our present government, something that is supposed to benefit us, is in fact diminishing us and will ultimately hasten our self-inflicted destruction.


We now know that trees live in connected communities, a network of relations. Peter Wohlleben describes in The Hidden Life of Trees, how trees nurture and talk to each other. Tree parents live together with their offspring, communicate with them, support them as they grow, and share nutrients with those that are sick and struggling. No apparent class divisions, no heroes, no victims. Instead, a conversation which, although we seem hell-bent on denying it, we are part of.


And of course, there are many more species of plants, all of which are an inherent part vegetal life and when it comes to the commodification of crops under the capitalist agro-scientific complex, once again we see plants exploited, their life-span and growth confined within the temporality of capital. Marder argues that an ethics of eating requires “a complete and concerted decommodification of vegetal life, a refusal to regulate the human relation to plants on the basis of commodity-economic logic.” In other words, we need to eat locally grown, organic plants whose lives have been respected. We need to refuse the use of genetically modified seeds that do not yield renewable crops and view all pesticides as the poisons that they are.


My own concerns, not raised specifically by Marder, are to do with how to respect vegetal life in the flower garden. What might this mean for the traditional herbaceous border, for mixed shrubberies and bedding plants, clipped hedges and topiary, not to mention the multi-national nursery business. I shall attempt some plant-like thinking on this conundrum for my next post.









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