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Brillian Green coverBy Stefano Mancuso and Alessandra Viola
Island Press
ISBN 13: 978-1-61091-603-5
ISBN 10: 1-61091-603-4
March 2015
Botany or Molecular Biology
Translated from Italian version Verde Brillante: Sensibilita e intelligenza del mondo vegetale, 2013 Giunti Editore S.p.A. Firenze-Milano

The revelations of this book begin with the basic differences between plants and animals, and how humans have been led to believe plants are purely vegetative with no ‘intelligent’ qualities. They talk about  how science disproves all those human assumptions and about plant supremacy. Everyone seems to know plants can live without animals, but not even humans can live without plants. They (plants) also reign on Earth as 97% of all life is plant, and the remaining 3% is animal, including humans.

Mancuso and Viola describe how plants organize their ‘bodies’ on an equivalent basis for all parts rather than the specialization of specific organ systems like animals. This provides plants the chance to recuperate even after losing up to 95% of their body. The authors explain how plants have all the senses of humans but use different methods. Plus they have many more sense. Humans, it seems, must change their thinking to see the truth of how smart plants really are. Plants hear, see, speak, feel, and smell but in different capacities using energy waves and operating at the molecular level. They seem to be great molecular manipulators. They also covered how plants communicate, both within body using three different systems, and outside the body by producing different scents. They provided some striking examples of how adept plants, who remain in situ, are at contacting other plants and animals.

orchid photo Ophrys apifera

Photo taken by Bernard Dupont, Creative Commons.

Plants as well as communicating with animals can manipulate them. For instance think about this example from the book: “Ususally, when we speak of mimesis we think of animals such as chameleons or walkingsticks. But their considerable mimetic abilities are as nothing compared to what an orchid like Ophrys apifera can do …Its flowers are able to mimic perfectly the shape of the female of certain nonsocial hymneoptera [wasp] …And that isn’t all: besides the female insect’s shape [and color], the orchid imitates the consistency of its tissues, its surface (including the fuzz on its body), and of course also its scent, secreting pheromones identical to the ones produced by females ready to mate” (page 113).

This was only one example, there are more. Some plants can call predator friends in the air or underground to attack their own predators. The question eventually becomes do humans manipulate plants with selective propagation and gene manipulation for their own purposes, or have plants been partners in this endeavor all this time? And don’t tell me it’s all evolution, because that same evolution brought us to where we are today.

photo of plant's complex societies

Complex societies

Since 2000, scientists, and in particular botanists, have been delving into the sentience of plants. They’ve made some amazing discoveries. Plants are not the insensate lifeforms Homo sapiens has believed for so long.

Most people, in the past and still today, think of plants as living, but sedentary things that just grew and either thrived or didn’t, but which provided humans food, medicine, and clothing. People presumed they lacked the ‘anima’ or movement and cunning of the upper echelon of life forms, animals, of which we humans, with our self-awareness and intelligence, dominate all other creatures and even the planet Earth. At least, again, that is what many think. We are now learning that we can change the Earth, but it isn’t always a smart thing to do, and that plants and ‘lower’ lifeforms might not be so much lower, and even in someways, smarter.

In reading a 2015 publication, Brilliant Green, The Surprising History and Science of Plant Intelligence, Ismarty-plants’ve learned philosophers since before Aristotle have wondered and postulated about plants, and whether they have souls, a sign of intelligence. Even Darwin and his son had views on plant intelligence which seemed to have been largely ignored. The authors of this book go on to describe plants’ ability to communicate, to remember, and to feel, see, hear, taste, and touch.

Programs like Nature on PBS are also creating shows like “What Plants Talk About,” (also known as “Smarty Plants” in Canada) which cover the discoveries about the ignored nature of plants. On Ted Talks, Stefano Mancuso  speaks on “The roots of plant intelligence,” and The New Yorker’s video “Do Bean Plants Show Intelligence,” based on the research of Michael Pollen, show scientists’ perceptions of plants are changing. Many videos are available on line to show the extraordinary discoveries about plant behaviors.

I’m sure most readers know that plants can survive without humans, but most ‘higher’ life forms cannot survive without plants and their ability to use sunlight, carbon dioxide from the air, and minerals found in the soil to produce sugars and other food substances. Depending on the species, they can live one season or for thousands of years. They clean air, water, and the soil that humans pollute. As mentioned, they take carbon dioxide from the air and release oxygen back into the air. What we often don’t know is they live in complex societies both above and below the soil, and when we decimate a forest for wood products, we can also decimate the society of entities that made the forest a healthy and productive ecosystem in the first place.

It is time for humans to stop taking plants, and other life-forms for granted and to use the products and life forms on Earth in a responsible way. Our existence depends on it.

Trees in Dusk SkyMany science fiction stories deal with aliens, either aggressive sentient beings set to grab all Earth’s resources for their own, or beings we encounter in our own space exploration with whom we establish friendly communications and accord. Personally, from our experiences on Earth, I think we tend to fall into the first category, but hope we might eventually reach the second. We do try.

As self-appointed most intelligent species, our learning curve has been dismally flat in inter-species communications. Of the thousands of species living with us on this planet, we have only managed to instill communications on a few, a process called training. However, though we may understand our pets’ behaviors, we have never established true communications with them. How do we expect to communicate with completely alien species if we cannot do so with Earth species, say, like trees?

For the most part, we love trees. They grow into majestically beautify forms that inspire our imaginations. We treasure their shade, they increase the value of our property. We appreciate their lumber for its structural strength, the beauty of its grain in products we make from it, and for the fuel it provides to warm us.

We don’t believe trees intelligent because we’ve never discovered brain or nerve tissue in their physiology. However, even that is changing. Consider the paper Aspects of Plant Intelligence and another paper on the consideration of that topic. Then consider some commonly known facts. Trees clean the environment. They remove carbon dioxide from the air, and poisons from the soil. They control erosion and clean water. They can protect their own domain (soil), often changing it to their own specifications. They react to changes in their environment to preserve their existence. They make their own food. And they leave a long lasting, un-technical record of their existence (tree rings). So just how intelligent are we?

Plus trees outlive us by many years. The short-lived trees often reach between 100 and 150 years. Not so much greater an age than us, but definitely longer. The longest-lived trees often outlast us by hundreds or even thousands of years. If you check out the link just given, note Prometheus, the Bristlecone Pine. Prometheus lived for 5,000 years, faithfully recording the Earth’s history annually. What did we do? We cut it down.

Now granted, after Prometheus was cut down, other Bristlecone Pines were saved for the sake of the seniority they hold. Yet you can, hopefully, understand why I doubt our ability to deal with anything alien. Before we deal with outer space, we need to sharpen our learning curve here at home.

Goldenburg, E. “n.d.” Last modified 2011, October 08, 5:12:44 PM) Eldan Goldenburg’s lab notebook, notes about my work and other peoples’.
Blog@Case. “n.d” Retrievd May 2 , 2009 from
Hightshoe, G. (1988). Native Trees, Shrubs, and Vines for Urban and Rural America, A Planting Design Manual for Environmental Designers (pp. 88). Van Nostrand Reinhold, NY: New York.
Prometheus (tree), (last modified 2012, October 09, at 23:18) Wikipedia. Retrieved from
Trewavas, A. (2003). Aspects of Plant Intelligence. Annals of Botany 92. Retrieved from

Watch this short video at Discovery News.

Another post on NPR titled ‘Plants Know The Rhythm Of The Caterpillar’s Creep,’ also talks about this phenomenon.

My belief in plant intelligence keeps getting more support.

Yes, scientists are studying how plants hear and respond to what they hear. So if you talk to your plants, isn’t it nice to know they are listening!

Nature, a TV series on PBS, had an episode on “What Plants Talk About.” It felt good to know so many others are interested in plant intelligence. Maybe I’m not as crazy as I sometimes feel. Some of the highlights are plants do indeed talk through the vaporous emissions, distinct chemical odors, from their leaf stomata. Dodder, a parasitic plant, uses these emissions to find its prey. Slow motion shows roots actually foraging for food, and the cooperation of some plants to find necessary nutrients, even territory. It shows how plant behaviors mimic many animal behaviors, only in a much slower time frame. An excellent program not to be missed by any gardener. (Click on program title to see the show.)

More Signs of Intelligence
In a post on my fiction blog, Considering Aliens… Like Trees, I mentioned that I thought trees are intelligent, just in a different way we don’t necessarily recognize. Yet, I am always amazed by what I learn about plants (and animals, too). Here is another instance.

Strange flower! Echo chamber leaves!
Two scientists, Dr. Ralph Simon of the University of Ulm in Germany, and Dr. Marc Holderied of the University of Bristol in England, recently discovered a plant pollinated by bats that grows saucer shaped leaves, or echo beacons, above the flowers to direct a species of long-tongued bats to the flowers. It seems the plants are rare and often distant in locations, even hidden by the foliage of other plants, but these beacons allow the bats to find them twice as fast, increasing their chances of pollination. Drs. Simon and Holderied wrote about their findings last week.

Plant uses leaves as sonar dishes for bats.

Plant uses leaves as sonar dishes for bats.

Now, if that isn’t enough to make you considered the intelligence of plants, another report shows a carnivorous pitcher plant found in Borneo that attracts bats with its alluring scent. Does it eat the woolly bats that visit? No. It only traps insects to digest, but bats often perch on the rim of the ‘pitcher’ part of the plant’s flower, and while perched, the bats poop into the pitcher. Yep. The plant gathers fertilizer (nitrogen) in the form of bat guano. The more successful the plant is as a bat toilet, the richer its leaves are in nitrogen.

Isn’t the world a wonderfully amazing place?

I’ve discussed the intelligence of plants and communicating with aliens. (I write scifi/fantasy so this has to interest me!) In our changing world, this is a skill we might have to learn and could start by practicing on plants.

Much to my amazement while reading The Week magazine, I discovered I’m not the only one who believes in plant intelligence. (Okay; I know this depends on your definition of intelligence, but this is also a matter of considering exactly what intelligence causes to happen. Do I know plants don’t write fiction or contemplate philosophy — yes, probably.) Investigations have shown certain evidence that plants might not only be able to talk to each other, but also wage high-tech chemical warfare.

Three have researched how plants use sound. Botanists in Australia, Britain, and Italy confirmed that the “young roots of corn made regular clicking sounds. They also found that young corn roots suspended in water leaned toward the source of a continuous sound emitted in the region of 220Hz, which is within the frequency range the same roots emitted themselves.” Though they don’t know how these sounds are made, or what they mean to the plants, they do acknowledge the plants respond.

This proves plants not only respond to light, react to volatile chemicals, but now to sound. All this without recognizable eyes, noses, ears, nervous systems, or brains. One of these researchers, Dr Monica Gagliano, from the University of Western Australia, said, “It is very likely that some form of sensitivity to sound and vibrations plays an important role in the life of plants.”

There is more, as I’ve found this old Internet article of 2007. Professor Stefano Mancuso is on a search for plant intelligence. He says, “If you define intelligence as the capacity to solve problems, plants have a lot to teach us,” and … “Not only are they ‘smart’ in how they grow, adapt and thrive, they do it without neuroses. Intelligence isn’t only about having a brain.”

So, while searching the web, you might discover more facts besides the sonar leaves of the Cuban plant, Marcgravia eveni. For instance, when Giraffes eat the leaves of acacia trees, the leaves munched upon emit a volatile chemical that alters the chemical balance in other leaves that turns them poisonous and unpalatable. The Giraffes stop eating the leaves. Bracken fern, like the eucalyptus tree, have developed methods to survive wild fires, moreover they both also encourage those fires to get rid of their competition. How about some proof plants recognize their own species? Yep. Some seem to do so. And how about orchids that have altered their scent to that of the female sexual hormone of the pollinating insects? Yep. True. Smart? I think so, but there is so much more. So give a few snaps for those smarty-pants corn seedlings!

Bracken Fern

Bracken Fern

Imagine a time when dinosaurs had mysteriously disappeared, and only little rat-like mammals ruled the planet. Then imagine these small animals scurrying around under bracken fern. The same bracken fern that line our lightly shaded forest floors and edge our fields. Maybe their green fronds are what make our landscape seem so pristine and primeval. Bracken fern are one of the most common global-wide plants known, one species growing in the Northern hemisphere, another in the Southern hemisphere.

You can’t miss bracken fern. It has two fern-like fronds emerging from an upright single, frond-topped rigid stalk. When newly emerged, the fronds are soft and pliant. As they age, they toughen making a walk in shorts through a colony of bracken an unpleasant, scratchy experience. This large fern grows knee-high or taller, and is most often found in partial shade to sunny, dry locations. Matter of fact, you won’t find it in waterlogged soils or heavily shaded areas where you expect to find ferns.

Bracken is a pioneer plant. It can grow on many types of soils, and the soil’s acidity or alkalinity doesn’t seem to matter. Wind-born spores allow it to quickly inhabit newly disturbed soils. It will be one of the first to start growing after a fire has swept through an area. Its dried fronds cover the ground in fall. This dried material helps fuel incipient fires and insure bracken’s survival by burning away competition while its rhizome root enables it to survive the same fire. This rhizome also forms the stalk, which is not the hollow ‘stem’ of most herbaceous perennials plants.

During bracken’s long survival it has evolved methods to ensure its continued existence. These methods do not make it a garden friendly plant. It secretes chemicals into the soil that inhibit the growth of neighboring plants. Chemicals in its leaves kill or inhibit the growth of insects. The plant invades crop fields, competing for the soil’s nutrients and moisture. It can poison cows and horses grazing on its fronds. Research has shown eating bracken can produce tumors in animals; the only plant known to have this capability.

Resistant to many herbicides, the only reliable way to eradicate bracken from an area is to repeatedly cut the above ground growth. This weakens the rhizome and eventually kills it.

An important crop used to thatch roofs and fuel a quick fire in Medieval Europe, today bracken is a human food crop. The emerging tightly curled fronds, or fiddleheads, are considered a delicacy raw, cooked, salted or pickled. It has been used as an ingredient of beer, the ground rhizome dried and ground for flour, and it is still used in parts of the world as an herbal remedy. Yes, it is still eaten despite the carcinogenic results of tests on lab animals and ties to leukemia and cancers of various digestive organs in humans.

To its credit, with it’s poisonous traits, bracken may become the source for new insecticides.

Another benefit come from the bracken. Their rhizomes extract phosphorus and transmute it into a type more readily available to plants, so the presence of bracken can indicate a nutrient rich soil. The fronds are sensitive to acid rain and act as an indicator of air pollution.

Long ago someone thought this upright, triangular arrangement of fronds made this fern look like an eagle. Bracken’s botanical name Pteridium aquilinum reflects this, aquilinum meaning ‘eagle-like.’ The genus name ‘Pteridium,’ derives from the Greek word for fern, and bracken comes down from Old English for any fern, but the word applied in particular to this fern. Its survival is more certain than that of its namesake.



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