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Food For Thought

Botanical conversations

A recent science program I happened to catch on television dealt with the subject of plants and how they communicate. There were several experiments depicted, and I found one of the most fascinating explored the notion that parent plants apparently nurture their offspring in a way that might be compared to the way most animals care for their young. Young trees growing in a grove of relatives appear to be given special care by their mother trees, through nutrients passed on through root connections. It was also evident that plants resist competing with their siblings for water, sunlight, and other necessities to healthy growth. Experiments indicated that they recognize relatives and can even alter their own natures to fit specific needs.
The whole concept boggles my mind to the point that I begin to wonder if plants have a consciousness; if they know they are doing those things. And that leads me to wonder if they have feelings and opinions, if they plan ahead or have goals and ambitions. And that, quite naturally, led me to wonder just how much they are aware of other life forms– like ourselves, and if they react to us in ways we haven’t yet noticed. Specifically, I’m wondering if they understand all those of us who regularly talk to our plants, be they showy houseplants or those in our vegetable gardens. And if they understand our language on some level, what do they think of us and the way we treat them? Do they resent us when we steal their fruits, seeds, leaves and roots to use for our own food?
Do our plants talk to us? Are they trying to communicate in some way that we haven’t yet learned to interpret? I’m pretty sure my ears would be burning at some of the things my plants would have said to or about me over the years. There would have been endless reminders to provide water well before their leaves began to droop and their flower buds dried up before they could open. There undoubtedly were pleas for plant food supplements, shade on hot days, shelter from buffeting winds, or severe scoldings for not dealing with the mealy bugs in a timely manner.
I remember specific plants and can well imagine how they must have resented my neglect. That pretty little Norfolk Island pine was probably screaming for frequent showers to relieve the infestation of spider mites that ultimately killed it. But I didn’t hear until it was too late. And a Persian violet that I apparently drowned by over-watering was probably begging for pity but I didn’t understand what it was saying as it burbled away, its roots rotting in the swampy flower pot that had no drainage hole. I’m also pretty sure that it was my fault that fine, silky fern turned brown and died so quickly. I found out too late that it really didn’t care to be petted and stroked– but it was so temptingly silky that I couldn’t resist. I just wasn’t listening.
Now, there are a few plants that I seem to understand. Either that, or they are simply so good-natured and tolerant that they don’t let me affect them very much. Take geraniums. These are such happy-go-lucky plants that nothing seems to faze them. They don’t pout and quit blooming when I fail to dead-head the spent blossoms. Rather, they seem to make a special effort to produce even more blooms– possibly to hide the old dried-up ones. They forgive me almost instantly when I remember to provide plant food, even though they’ve missed at least two feedings. Instead of scolding me, they smile and send out bushels of new growth and bigger flowers just to show me that they don’t hold a grudge.
My spider plant is incredibly patient. It never complains when it has filled its hanging pot with roots and consumed all the potting soil I gave it. It seems to put itself on hold when I neglect to water it and, while it’s leaves sometimes turn brown along the edges, it simply bides its time, then produces a whole new generation of offspring as soon as I give it the slightest attention. Even though it’s hanging pot is almost beyond my reach (thus the infrequent watering) it seems determined to send out its children and grandchildren to seek a place to take root. Often there are six or seven levels of new plantlets, vainly striving to reach soil where they can take root, but I never hear a complaint.
I think the most tolerant of all my plants are the several varieties of cactus that thrive and bloom lavishly each spring and summer. There are several varieties and they produce an eye-catching range of blooms in different sizes and colors, including one that blooms only at night. Cacti, I believe, don’t grumble or whine; they just hang in there, stoic as Job, until the water comes. Then they bloom like crazy in spite of past neglect. But then, they come from the desert where there aren’t a whole lot of people around to coddle them, and they seem to know what they’re doing without our help.