Science Corner: Nectar of the Plant Overlords

beach evening primrose photo

The beach evening primrose apparently uses its flowers to collect sound waves. (Photo by USFWS Pacific Southwest Region )

Last year I discovered Sue Burke’s Semiosis at the library and found it an intriguing read. Human colonists arrive on a new planet and over the course of several generations develop a mutually beneficial relationship with the intelligent creatures native to that world. All of the usual first contact challenges apply. How do you communicate without a shared language? How do you establish trust when your very presence could be seen as invasive and hostile? How do you navigate cultural differences? In Semiosis, all of those issue and more must be negotiated across an additional barrier: the locals communicate by smells and chemical signals rather than sight and sound. On this planet, the most intelligent organisms are plants.

As you might imagine, it takes many years for the colonists to even realize the plants are their cognitive peers, let alone attempt a dialogue. While we don’t have evidence of comparable plant intelligence here on Earth, we may still have underestimated our local flora and overlooked their capacity to communicate. Recent research—still being reviewed, but already reported on by The Atlanticexplored whether flowers can hear and possibly even make meaningful sounds. The idea that plants can detect and respond to sound is not entirely new, but despite the classic grade school science fair project of playing Puccini for petunias the musical hypotheses have not been studied more rigorously. This study found that certain flowers respond specifically to the sound of bees and other potential pollinators by sweetening their nectar to make it more attractive. The response is rapid, on the order of just a couple of minutes, a quality you may not regularly associate with plants. From there, one can easily construct a narrative about plants conserving resources like sugar and only spending them when they will be most effective–a kind of targeted marketing, if you will.

The companion study by the same lab listened to tomato and tobacco plants. They detected sounds, but it is less clear if the plants or any other organisms can and do use the sounds for communication. Instead, it could just be noise, like the grumble of your stomach or the cracking of your joints. But even if plants aren’t audibly chatty, they also aren’t just passive listeners. They do actively communicate via chemicals, as The Atlantic story mentions. Actually, many of the mechanisms discussed there also feature in Semiosis, possibly enhanced or extrapolated but clearly based on the science of terrestrial plants.

Not only are plants chatty, they have preferences about who they communicate with. They have a sense of family and prefer to be next to and interact with relatives. That study reports related plants can actually be placed closer together and are more productive, which has practical implications for agriculture. After all, people are going to be living closer together too and needing more food, so growing it more efficiently is and will be important.

I was intrigued by both the novel and the science its based on because it pushes our expectations and assumptions about communication and language. How do you interpret a message you don’t even recognize as a message? How do you have a meaningful relationship with a being whose experience is profoundly different than yours, mediated by different senses? Knowing how much communication is going on under our noses here on Earth makes me wonder if we’ll ever be able to recognize if aliens are trying to talk to us, and also how much other communication we are missing.

If you haven’t seen it yet, please check out this post with news about ESN and Tom Grosh. Tom has been a friend for my entire adult life. He is unequivocally the reason I write for this blog, both because he has been a sustaining force behind ESN for many years and because he invited me to give it a try. I am grateful for the community that has grown here during his tenure, appreciative of the opportunity to develop as a writer, and excited to see what the future holds for Tom and for ESN.

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Andy Walsh

Andy has worn many hats in his life. He knows this is a dreadfully clichéd notion, but since it is also literally true he uses it anyway. Among his current metaphorical hats: husband of one wife, father of two elementary school students, reader of science fiction and science fact, enthusiast of contemporary symphonic music, and chief science officer. Previous metaphorical hats include: comp bio postdoc, molecular biology grad student, InterVarsity chapter president (that one came with a literal hat), music store clerk, house painter, and mosquito trapper. Among his more unique literal hats: British bobby, captain's hats (of varying levels of authenticity) of several specific vessels, a deerstalker from 221B Baker St, and a railroad engineer's cap. His monthly Science in Review is drawn from his weekly Science Corner posts -- Wednesdays, 8am (Eastern) on the Emerging Scholars Network Blog. His book Faith across the Multiverse is available from Hendrickson.

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