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What The Petunia Knows

We’ll look at the new science of what plants feel, smell, see – and remember.

Orchid (Galileo55/Flickr)

Orchid (Galileo55/Flickr)

We ooh and ahh over flowers, fields of green, begonias, sequoias, even the humble petunia.  But it’s easy to underestimate a plant.  My guest today says it’s no use playing them Mozart.  They’re deaf as can be.  But by a whole lot of other measures, plants are wide awake and really  paying attention.

They can see when you come near them.  Feel when they’re touched.  Smell what’s going on around them, and respond.  And they remember.  In their own way, not entirely different from humans, they know what’s going on.  Tobacco.  Cherry.  Willow.  Chrysanthemum.

This hour, On Point:  what a plant knows.

-Tom Ashbrook


Daniel Chamovitz,  director of the Manna Center for Plant Biosciences at Tel Aviv University. He’s the author of a new book, What a Plant Knows: A Field Guide to the Senses. You can read an excerpt here.

From Tom’s Reading List

Wall Street Journal “Garden flowers have a sense of smell? I don’t think so. The vegetables growing in my backyard have an aversion to being touched? Surely not. Trees remember the weather? Now you are kidding. Daniel Chamovitz, the director of the Manna Centre for Plant Biosciences at Tel Aviv University, is kidding no one. He aims to shock: “Think about this: plants see you,” reads the opening line of “What a Plant Knows.””

NPR “Ewww, you say. (I am assuming you are pro-tomato). But how do we know the vine is “smelling” that tomato plant? Enter Dr. Consuelo De Moraes, a biologist at Penn State. With her colleagues, she put the dodder plant to the test.”

Video: Growing Plants

Check out this video of tomato and dodder plants.

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  • Yar

    I had a morning glory grow under my garage door and wrap itself around my hoe.  Was it making fun of me? Did it smell the hoe?  Or am I seeing a random event and making a connection that doesn’t exist?  Maybe it is proof that God has a sense of humor.  

    • Sam

       `I refuse to prove that I exist,’ says God, `for proof denies faith, and without faith I am nothing.’

      `But,’ says Man, `The Babel fish is a dead giveaway, isn’t it? It could
      not have evolved by chance. It proves you exist, and so therefore, by
      your own arguments, you don’t. QED.’

      `Oh dear,’ says God, `I hadn’t thought of that,’ and promptly disappears in a puff of logic.

  • Gemli

    We’re constantly surprised to find that living things aren’t stupid.  For petunias to be here today they had to do what all living things do and solve the problems that the planet threw at them.  Reproduction is imperfect, and there are always tiny differences between petunias in every generation.  Those that are slightly better equipped make it to the next round, carrying with them those unique traits, and thereby giving a slight advantage to the next generation.  All living species we see around us are the winners of an almost unimaginably improbable lottery.  To look only at the end result of billions of years of evolution can give the false impression that the journey was preordained or conjured up by magic.  The untold billions of creatures who paved the way would tell a very different story.

    • http://riversong.wordpress.com/ Robert Riversong

      Yes they could (and do) tell a very different story. It’s not one of a “lottery” or random mutations, but of a very intentional and minute-by-minute response to the environment, changing their chemistry to meet their own and their neighbor’s needs. This is thoroughly documented.

      When suffering from pathogenic intestinal parasites chimpanzees will select from a variety of plants depending on the nature of the parasite. For example, they ingest pith of Vernonia species to kill and stop the reproductive activity of schistosoma parasites. Vernonia contains a variety of potent chemistries, including toxic sesquiterpene lactones and steroid glycosides. The glycosides vernonioside B1 and vernoniol B1 suppress parasite movement and egg-laying, reducing their population density. When infected with oesophagostomum parasitic worms, on the other hand, chimpanzees seek out entirely different plants. They pick rough, bristly haired Aspilia leaves, which contain a unique compound – thiarubrine A.
      Thiarubrine A is active against a wide variety of nematodes and intestinal worms that commonly affect chimpanzees. The chimpanzees fold the leaves like accordions and swallow them whole. The thiarubrine A weakens or kills the worms and the unchewed leaves, because of the folding and rough bristles, catch the worms as the leaves move through the GI tract, pulling them loose and out of the system. By not chewing the leaves the chimpanzees ensure they will pass into the small intestine in their whole, folded form and also ensure that the thiarubrine A will not be broken down in the stomach.

      Chimpanzees are, as well, exceedingly particular about which part of the plant they choose. They only use the pith of the Vernonia; it is lowest in toxic sesquiterpene lactones and highest in the steroidal glycosides. Chimpanzees actively test Asphilia plants for activity by holding a leaf in their mouth for extended periods of time before deciding to pick it or go on to another. As they sit, allowing their vomeronasal receptors to analyze the chemical content of their chosen plant, in return, the plant, as it does with spider mites, analyzes the saliva of the chimpanzee. In a short period of time, the plant begins altering its chemical production to enhance the necessary chemicals needed by the chimpanzee for healing.

      Plants create and release their complex chemicals primarily in response to complexly interwoven feedback cues from the world around them. When information comes to them from the outside world, they respond by creating specific chemicals and releasing them into the soil or into the air.

      • Gemli

        Changes in the biology of organisms are not in response to need.  Changes in genes occur randomly.  Those changes that happen to be marginally beneficial help the chimpanzees survive and reproduce, and the genes are passed on to the offspring.  After a billion years, the incremental, accidental changes accumulate, and make the organism appear to be in remarkable tune with the environment.  Check out Richard Dawkins’ book, The Greatest Show on Earth, for an extremely informative overview of the science of evolution.

        • http://riversong.wordpress.com/ Robert Riversong

          That’s a 20th century understanding of evolution. The field of Epigenetics has disproved much of that.

  • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

    Please do explain the difference between following a set of chemical rules and consciousness.

    • http://riversong.wordpress.com/ Robert Riversong

      Being aware of one’s environment and responding selectively and appropriately is the definition of consciousness.

      With humans, on the other hand, much conscious attention is self-consciousness, which results in missing most of what goes on in their environment and hence significantly diminishing their functional intelligence.

      • syzygysb

        Thank you for helping me to better understand what I have felt to be true for over 40 years  concerning my fruit trees and flowers. I hope you can reach more people and teach them as well.

        • http://riversong.wordpress.com/ Robert Riversong

          I would encourage you to read Stephen Harrod Buhner’s books, The Lost Language of Plants and The Secret Teachings of Plants.

          He shares both the ancient wisdom and practical techniques for communicating with plants for healing, and the cutting-edge science which confirms the ancient knowledge.

  • Sam

    The Book:
    Curiously, the only thing that went through the mind of the bowl of
    petunias, as it fell, was, “Oh no, not again!” Many people have
    speculated that if we knew exactly *why* the bowl of petunias had
    thought that we would know a lot more about the nature of the universe
    than we do now. 

    • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

       Thank you!  That does get answered in a later volume of the trilogy.

      • Sam

        Hi Greg.
        Good to see you on. :)

        I don’t remember that part, I haven’t read those in a while. I guess I should revisit the books.

        I was thinking recently, that HHGG would be one book I would choose to take with me to the deserted island. To answer that hypothetical question, everyone always asks. :)
        I am glad to see DNA’s homage here.


        • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

           I read the trilogy as a teenager, and the world then made sense.  A weird and screwed up kind of sense, but sense nonetheless.

    • J__o__h__n
  • Combs

    What is the solution to “Oops, we can’t reach SoundCloud”?
    I’ve uninstalled and reinstalled Google Chrome, updated to the latest Flash Player and Java versions and still no luck.

    • http://riversong.wordpress.com/ Robert Riversong

      Ask the petunias.

  • ToyYoda

    Great show.  Scientific American recently had an article on this very subject.  They used a fascinating example of the Cuscuta Pentagona, “the dodder plant”, which is a parasitic plant which as it grows, prefers tomato plants over another.  After some clever experiments, they were able to determine that the dodder plant ‘smelled’ certain chemicals that the tomato plant gave off.

    The article continues onto chemicals that repel insects.  Great stuff, check it out.

    • http://riversong.wordpress.com/ Robert Riversong

      Why do you put “smell” in quotations when referring to plants? The biophysical process is identical to human smell, except that the plant will universally respond appropriately to such smell signals while humans often don’t, indicating a much lower level of functional intelligence in humans.

      • ToyYoda

        I put it in quotation so that I could avoid anthropocentric critique. I guess I didn’t anticipate biocentric comments.

        And since we are nitpicking, the ‘biophysical process’ is ambiguous and depends on point of view. Certainly they are not the same physiologically which falls under the rubric of “biophysical process”. Humans use neurons to smell and respond, plants have no neurons.

        • http://riversong.wordpress.com/ Robert Riversong

          What is a neuron, but a specialized cell. All animal and plant cells have receptors for specific chemicals, and all intracellular communication is via chemicals or bio-electric signals (ion exchange).

          It’s all the same, except to reductionist scientists or anthropocentric humans. Not only all “living” things (which I put in quotes because it’s just another reductionist category we’ve invented), but all things participate in a complex cybernetic exchange of information and feedback response.

          That is how Gaia – the undifferentiated organism composed of the earth’s geology, atmosphere, oceans and biotic community –  has been able to maintain conditions conducive to life within a very narrow range for 3.5 billion years, in spite of a sun which is now 25% hotter (or, at least, could do so until “intelligent” humanity interfered).

          • ToyYoda

            I think we agree on some of the holistic ideas you present, but you seem to argue trivial details.  So, I worry for you.

            To tell me that there is no difference between how plants and animals respond to smell at a physiological level and that its all chemical is to deny the diversity of life, and so you practice the very reductionistic view that you preach against.

          • http://riversong.wordpress.com/ Robert Riversong

            I argue against trivial details and for the big picture approach, so if you must worry, do so about your inability to comprehend simple language, and your tendency to misconstrue what you read.

            I did not say there is no difference on the physiological level – I said on the bio-physical level, to avoid the artificial distinction between living and ostensibly non-living things.

            One can celebrate the diversity of life without pigeon-holing each element into artificial categories which exist only in our minds.

            What I address is the universality and commonality of all things on earth (and in the universe). That is the diametric opposite of reductionism.

  • Christine

    I always thought that it was weird that some vegetarians cared so much about the feelings of animals but not at all about plants.  Maybe a tomato plant does care if its fruit was ripped away from it, or an asparagus was just hacked down without any regard for the leftover stump.  Years ago we thought that animals had no feelings, so maybe our thoughts on plants will change in the future as well.

    • Sam


      “What’s the problem Earthman?” said Zaphod, now transferring his attention to the animal’s enormous rump.

      “I just don’t want to eat an animal that’s standing here inviting me to,” said Arthur, “it’s heartless.”

      “Better than eating an animal that doesn’t want to be eaten,” said Zaphod.

      not the point,” Arthur protested. Then he thought about it for a
      moment. “Alright,” he said, “maybe it is the point. I don’t care, I’m
      not going to think about it now. I’ll just … er …”

      The Universe raged about him in its death throes.

      “I think I’ll just have a green salad,” he muttered.

      I urge you to consider my liver?” asked the animal, “it must be very
      rich and tender by now, I’ve been force-feeding myself for months.”

      “A green salad,” said Arthur emphatically.

      “A green salad?” said the animal, rolling his eyes disapprovingly at Arthur.

      “Are you going to tell me,” said Arthur, “that I shouldn’t have green salad?”

      said the animal, “I know many vegetables that are very clear on that
      point. Which is why it was eventually decided to cut through the whole
      tangled problem and breed an animal that actually wanted to be eaten and
      was capable of saying so clearly and distinctly. And here I am.”

      It managed a very slight bow.

      “Glass of water please,” said Arthur.”

    • http://riversong.wordpress.com/ Robert Riversong

      Some have thought about it.

      Steven Gaskin, who started the Tennessee Farm commune, once told me that he’d been to pig stickin’s and corn huskin’s and the vibes were better at the corn huskin’s.

  • Csmcnamee

    From years as a teacher in Jamaica, I grew to love the “Shame-old-lady” plant which grew everywhere in the country. It was touch sensitive, and would fold up its leaves and branches when touched by passersby. Two years ago I ordered some seeds of this plant and had remarkable success indoors. Last year I neglected water them for months and put them out on my back porch in February and didn’t take any care of them. Two weeks ago I spotted new plants growing despite my neglect. Thei technical name is “mimosa pudica” and they fascinate children.

  • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

    “Know” in plants means something different from “know” with regard to humans and even animals.  Knowing, to a plant, is a programmed response only.

    • http://riversong.wordpress.com/ Robert Riversong

      It does when compared to some people, since any plant knows far more about life than you do, who routinely displays the most stunning evidence of abject ignorance.

      • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

         So programming is more knowledge than choice and learning?  I see how you “think.”

        • http://riversong.wordpress.com/ Robert Riversong

          The only “programming” occurs among humans as cultural propaganda to inculcate the dominant cognitive paradigm. Plants don’t go to school for 12 or 16 years or watch TV. They know how to live from the start.

          All non-human creatures respond to their environments unmediated by cognitive programming, which over-rides basic biological instincts – almost always for the worse.

          • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

             O.K., if you want to live the life of a vegetable, go ahead.  Based on your comments, you’re there already.

          • syzygysb

            So angry.

      • Zig

        Does any plant also know far more about life than Robert Riversong does? Or, the knowledge of plants used only to belittle people other than Robert Riversong, who knows best?

  • J__o__h__n

    As domesticated animals are less intelligent than wild animals, are domestic plants less able to sense than wild plants?

    • http://riversong.wordpress.com/ Robert Riversong

      It probably depends on how far removed they are from their aboriginal wild state.

      A native American elder once said that a domestic cow is a buffalo without a soul.

  • http://www.facebook.com/mark.council1 Mark Council

    Nature hasn’t evolved all of these billions of years by accident. Somehow humans have in great part disenfranchised themselves from the essence of life. The more we can observe and listen to the intelligence of nature, the better off we ALL will be-

    • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

      Actually, it was exactly by accident.  Some organisms are born with a set of genes that are better adapted to the environment than others.  That difference is caused by random changes in the DNA.  There is no direction or plan in evolution.

      • http://riversong.wordpress.com/ Robert Riversong

        Your understanding of evolution is at the elementary school level.

        DNA is nothing more than a blueprint of possible designs. The expression of the DNA is controlled by the environment, and the organism/environment  matrix (for they are separate only in man’s mind) can alter the genetic code at will.

        This has all been demonstrated by the field of Epigenetics.

        • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

           None of which implies a plan.  You’re allowing a philosophy to color your science.

          • http://riversong.wordpress.com/ Robert Riversong

            You’re blinding your thinking by anthropomorphism. Nature didn’t write out a lesson plan, but there is no doubt that she has a purpose and direction, as does the universe as a whole.

            The universe is moving toward a goal or endpoint of thermal equilibrium, or maximum entropy. That goal was established at its inception.

            Life’s purpose is to assist the universal purpose – the maximization of entropy, and it does this orders of magnitude more efficiently than “dead” matter.

            The purpose, then, of any individual element of the global ecology, such as people, is to serve the larger purpose of life’s mission on earth.

            The optimum contribution to that overall ecological mission is made by mature (climax), rather than adolescent (colonizing), individuals and ecological communities – those who achieve a steady-state level of energy and material throughput with the least leakage of waste to the environment.

            This is not “philosophy” – its thermodynamics based on the most fundamental physical law of the universe: the Second Law or the Law of Entropy.

          • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

             Do you understand what entropy means?  It’s a dead state.  It’s the maximum point of uselessness of energy.

            But on the local level, namely the Earth, we’re getting energy added to the system all the time from the Sun.  Entropy applies only in closed systems.

            Still, since entropy is maximum chaos, I can’t see how you regard it as the purpose of life.

          • http://riversong.wordpress.com/ Robert Riversong

            I clearly understand it orders of magnitude better than you.

            It’s a “dead” state only to us, as it’s the state at which there is no more usable energy – not no more energy. It’s a rest, or equilibrium, state – and everything in our universe strives for equilibrium (except humanity).

            The earth is a closed thermodynamic system, not an isolated one which has no outside energy source, such as the universe. Neither is the earth an open system, which can rely on outside sources of material (except for the rare asteroid or cosmic dust).

            That you “can’t see” what the laws of thermodynamics demand, is only an indication of your blindness.

          • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

             By all means, please do get yourself to maximum entropy.  Enjoy it.

  • AC

    do the plants know how many of their brethren i’ve murdered?? it’s not my fault, i travel a lot!!

    • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

      Watch out for the Ents.

  • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

    You do have to have a brain to be conscious of sensations.  There’s a reason that we say that some humans are in a vegetative state.  Their basic functions continue, but they have no awareness of what’s going on.

    • http://riversong.wordpress.com/ Robert Riversong

      Neurons are receptors of outside communication, as well as any individual cell with its cell membrane receptors that “read” one chemical signal and ignore others.

      All life is conscious and sentient, and most life is also intelligent – some humans notwithstanding.

      • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

         We exist at a much higher level of complexity than plants.

        • http://riversong.wordpress.com/ Robert Riversong

          Maximum complexity in any system comes just prior to failure. It is an indicator of increasing difficulty in coping with environmental stressors and impending collapse – not a measure of perfection. 

          The most “perfect” form of life is the bacteria, as it can alter its behavior and its genetic code as needed to survive any environmental change or crisis.

          The most complex creatures are the least resilient and adaptable. In any contest between humans and bacteria, the bacteria will always win, as we are discovering now with multiple antibiotic resistant superbugs.

          • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

             Yes, you go enjoy living on the level of a bacterium.  What a fulfilling life.

          • http://riversong.wordpress.com/ Robert Riversong

            And is it more fulfilling to act, as you do, like a cancer on the earth?

          • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

             A cancer?  You know nothing about me.  What I see from you is that you spout nonsense and then become offensive whenever anyone doesn’t accept your line as obvious.

          • http://riversong.wordpress.com/ Robert Riversong

            I know that you are blind to reality on many levels, and assume that you are superior to the rest of the web of life. 

            That false belief is what makes people and humanity a cancer in the world.

    • syzygysb

      Wow.  You need to keep up with current findings on persons in “vegetative states.”  There is evidence now that these persons often do hear and are aware of what takes place around them.  

      • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

        That’s a coma, not a vegetative state.

        • syzygysb

          Have you heard of the work of Cambridge neuroscientist Adrian Owen?  Have you heard of Kate Bainbridge?  There are findings now that show some of these vegetative patients are aware and do communicate if given the chance.

  • Rusalka

    Can you talk about the Indian scientist Bose’s contribution to this field?

  • Neenytyo

    Somewhere I read, or heard, ( on here one time?) that trees cry when they are cut down. I don’t remember where I heard it, but I have never forgotton it. I am a plant/tree lover. Also, kids, music and art but plants are a big love of mine. I do not have a lot of them, but the ones I have, are happy. They thrive! My bathroom window is full of orchids’ but were cheap drugstore ones, but now are huge and full of flowers. They like the morning light and coolish air. My flowers downstairs love the living room window panes. I have a nice pine tree in the bathroom too. I adore my plants.

    • http://riversong.wordpress.com/ Robert Riversong

      They certainly bleed. To show respect for our tree cousins (whom native Americans believe are the closest living relatives to humankind), it is wise to ask permission of a tree before cutting it down. If not, you might find yourself with a “widowmaker” limb falling on your head.

  • BHA in Vermont

    Geez, don’t tell my daughter about this. She already doesn’t eat animals. Emotional reasons, not potential health reasons. Not much left if you don’t eat plants either!

    • http://riversong.wordpress.com/ Robert Riversong

      Hindu holy men have been known to go months without food (albeit in a meditative state), absorbing their “nourishment” directly from the universe.

  • Jenny Clark

    I would like to know then why Bamboos have a tendency to grow taller in shady areas? Can you please explain why? What is the Bambooes information processing?  

    • http://riversong.wordpress.com/ Robert Riversong

      They’re trying to reach the sun?

  • Leigh

    Over 30 years ago I had a show playing on the television about plants. It was detailing an experiment measuring plants’ reactions to human thoughts. When the researcher began concentrating on burning the plant, one of my houseplants fell (leapt) from the shelf. It was a very surreal moment in my life that has stayed with me.

    • http://riversong.wordpress.com/ Robert Riversong

      You’re probably referring to the work of Cleve Backster, who connected  a lie detector to a plant, and found that it could tell from his thoughts what his intentions were when he was going to burn it or tear its leaf.

      Backster began his career as an Interrogation Specialist with the CIA, and went on to become Chairman of the Research and Instrument Committee of the Academy for Scientific Interrogation. Backster has presented his work at numerous scientific meetings including those of the Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS), founded by astronaut Edgar Mitchell, and the Institute for Transpersonal Psychology in Palo Alto, CA.

  • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

    It’s not species-centric to identify the objective reality that we have complex brains and plants don’t.

    • J__o__h__n

      That is exactly the sort of mammalist comment I’d expect from you.

      • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

         You betcha!  I have a machete and a box of matches.  Bring it on!

  • http://twitter.com/mem_somerville mem_somerville

    You should watch the youtube video of Arrogant Worm’s “Carrot Juice is Murder.” Hilarious.

    On the other hand, plenty of plants have killer compounds of various sorts. 

  • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

     Gag–just listen to the vapid tone of that voice-over.  Can’t we forget the seventies?

  • Sue

    Thank you Daniel!. My profession is in plants and they absolutely do communicate. I work in a conservatory with lots of plants and easy to miss one when caring for them. Well, when I’m finished with my work and saying goodbye, if I’ve missed one it calls out…I feel it! I then do a quick scan and always find it. I could go on and on with personal experience in how plants communicate with me…and of course…I talk to them!

    • http://riversong.wordpress.com/ Robert Riversong

      It’s sad that most modern people have lost the ability (or even the desire) to communicate with the more-than-human world.

      But we still use language which points to this ability, such as having a “heart to heart talk”. 

      Stephen Harrod Buhner has written extensively about both ancient knowledge and cutting-edge science which both demonstrate how we communicate primarily through our hearts (which has more neural cells than muscle cells and is not primarily a pump – blood begins to flow in a fetus in utero before the heart has developed to the point at which it can constrict).

      This science also demonstrates that the heart, and not the brain is the primary controller of the human endocrine system, which maintains health and homeostasis. When the body’s organ systems are harmonically aligned with the resonance of the brain (as with most modern people), we are in a state of chronic disease. When the body’s organ systems are harmonically attuned to the resonance of the heart, we area in a state of health.

      It is through a re-centering in the heart that we can rediscover our lost ability to communicate directly with plants and other non-human intelligences.

      • Zig

        Who are these “we” you constantly refer to in your comments? Are you projecting on to others, or speaking for others? Or is the “we” Robert Riversong and his multiple personalities?

  • BHA in Vermont

    Hearing is simply evaluating sound waves – vibration. You don’t need to be able to hear to know that the kid in the hopped up car has a BIG sound system with BIG bass. Your car vibrates, your body vibrates, you want to smack him upside the head and make HIM vibrate.

    Thus, if orchard trees can’t hear but do have some response to bird sounds on loud speakers, it is likely they are feeling the vibration.

    • http://riversong.wordpress.com/ Robert Riversong

      In fact, all information is coded vibration. That is why particularly sensitive people can pick up “vibes” from other creatures, from other people half way round the world, and even from the past or future (which co-exist as quantum entanglements and quantum probabilities).

  • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

    Communication implies conscious intent.  Responding to chemicals in the environment is not communication in the human sense.

    • http://riversong.wordpress.com/ Robert Riversong

      That’s all humans do: respond to chemical and vibrational stimuli. There is no difference between human and animal or plant communication. On the biophysical level, it’s identical.

      • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

         You’ve heard of choice?

        • http://riversong.wordpress.com/ Robert Riversong

          You must be referring to the myth of free will and free agency (also called the hubris of believing we are god-like).

          To have agency beyond the physical imperatives of the body requires a belief in a mind entirely separate from the body, which is the Cartesian dualism that has led us down a primrose path to our own extinction.

          • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

             But you were compelled to say that, right?

          • http://riversong.wordpress.com/ Robert Riversong

            Of course – otherwise it wouldn’t have been said. 

            We separate inner impulsion and outer compulsion, as if the inner and outer were different in reality rather than just conceptually.

            There are no divisions or categories except in our minds.

  • Susan

    with respect to bird and music sound influencing plants, could it just be a matter of sound vibration having an effect? sound moves air doesn’t it? perhaps the sound wave ‘touches’ the plant and produces a response.

  • Patricia Austin in Vermont

    What about taste?  Since plants can smell I could imagine that they can “taste” the water, nutrients and food we feed them.

    • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

      Smell and taste are basically the same sense.

      • http://riversong.wordpress.com/ Robert Riversong

        Not really. 

        Some people smell bad and others have bad taste.

      • Stillin

        No Greg, you’re wrong on that. There is taste, aroma, touch, sight and hearing…those are the senses.

        • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

           Look at the science.  Smell and taste are the same process and are closely linked.  Note that if you have a cold, food doesn’t have as strong a flavor?  That’s because taste is tied to your ability to smell.

  • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

    I’ve told my yard to stop growing, but it doesn’t listen.  Stubborn grass. . .

    • http://riversong.wordpress.com/ Robert Riversong

      Did it ever occur to you that your lawn doesn’t like you?

      • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

        It’s grass.  It’s not a conscious being.

        • http://riversong.wordpress.com/ Robert Riversong

          If it makes you feel more secure to believe that, be my guest.

          • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

             What evidence do you have that grass is conscious?  I don’t mean, responds to basic stimuli.  I mean conscious.

          • http://riversong.wordpress.com/ Robert Riversong

            New research opens a window on the minds of plants
            by Patrik Jonsson, Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / March 3, 2005

            Hardly articulate, the tiny strangleweed, a pale parasitic plant, can sense the presence of friends, foes, and food, and make adroit decisions on how to approach them.

            Mustard weed, a common plant with a six-week life cycle, can’t find its way in the world if its root-tip statolith – a starchy “brain” that communicates with the rest of the plant – is cut off.

            The ground-hugging mayapple plans its growth two years into the future, based on computations of weather patterns. And many who visit the redwoods of the Northwest come away awed by the trees’ survival for millenniums – a journey that, for some trees, precedes the Parthenon.

            As trowel-wielding scientists dig up a trove of new findings, even those skeptical of the evolving paradigm of “plant intelligence” acknowledge that, down to the simplest magnolia or fern, flora have the smarts of the forest. Some scientists say they carefully consider their environment, speculate on the future, conquer territory and enemies, and are often capable of forethought – revelations that could affect everyone from gardeners to philosophers.

            Indeed, extraordinary new findings on how plants investigate and respond to their environments are part of a sprouting debate over the nature of intelligence itself.

            “The attitude of people is changing quite substantially,” says Anthony Trewavas, a plant biochemist at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland and a prominent scholar of plant intelligence. “The idea of intelligence is going from the very narrow view that it’s just human to something that’s much more generally found in life.”

            The late Nobel Prize-winning plant geneticist Barbara McClintock called plant cells “thoughtful.” Darwin wrote about root-tip “brains.” Not only can plants communicate with each other and with insects by coded gas exhalations, scientists say now, they can perform Euclidean geometry calculations through cellular computations and, like a peeved boss, remember the tiniest transgression for months.

            To a growing number of biologists, the fact that plants are now known to challenge and exert power over other species is proof of a basic intellect.

            “If intelligence is the capacity to acquire and apply knowledge, then, absolutely, plants are intelligent,” agrees Leslie Sieburth, a biologist at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.

            For philosophers, one of the key findings is that two cuttings, or clones, taken from the same “mother plant” behave differently even when planted in identical conditions.

            “We now know there’s an ability of self-recognition in plants, which is highly unusual and quite extraordinary that it’s actually there,” says Dr. Trewavas. “But why has no one come to grips with it? Because the prevailing view of a plant, even among plant biologists, is that it’s a simple organism that grows reproducibly in a flower pot.”

  • Amanda

    I work for a company that supplies and cares for office plants and we throw away plants on a daily basis, often into compost barrells right alongside our warehouse full of new plants. I often wonder if this sends a bad message to the new ones and shortens their life span…this conversation makes me think it does!

    • http://riversong.wordpress.com/ Robert Riversong

      Years ago, I became a vegetarian (I’m now an opportunivore) after watching, transfixed, while a farmer was butchering a cow hanging in the doorway of his barn.

      Two other cows were standing behind the wooden fence watching and audibly moaning in sadness.

      There’s no reason, other than humanity’s need to reduce everything into separate categories, to assume that all living things don’t have the same spectrum of reactions.

      If you explain to the plants why you’re composting them, or ask for their forgiveness, you’ll all probably get along much better.

  • Sam

    What about the fact that gathering medicinal should be done at specific times of the day and season?

    Same with planting.
    I think gardeners use the lunar schedule? for planing things?

    • http://riversong.wordpress.com/ Robert Riversong

      From The Lost Language of Plants, by Stephen Harrod Buhner:

      Scientists have discovered that plant species may posses widely different chemistries depending on the time of day, week, or month they are picked. And though the physicians laughed at them, the Appalachian folk healers would have understood and been unsurprised. For among them it was common knowledge that this plant must only be picked in the morning before the dew is off the leaves or that one only by light of the full moon.

      The plants have long been our teachers and healers. The Cherokee and Creek understood this long ago. It was said among them that the plants took pity on the suffering of their offspring, the human beings, and that each plant offered up a remedy to heal one of the diseases of humankind.

      There is deep wisdom in this. Understanding ourselves to be offspring, the children, of the plants, naturally engenders a familial bond. It shifts the focus of our relationship from one of plants as resources to them being senior, caring members of the same family. More than that, the power lies with the plants, not with us. We are their children, they are not our property. As with all children, when we hurt, the nature of their relationship to us leads them to want to help us.

      When the ancient Greeks named certain plants Ambrosias – givers of life – this is something they understood.

  • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

    But unlike a plant, if we want to build a tall building, we can design a structure that can resist the wind or can function in it.

    • http://riversong.wordpress.com/ Robert Riversong

      Plant structures don’t have to worry about terrorist attacks or earthquakes. Who, then, is the more intelligent?

      • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

         Plants don’t have the choice to commit acts of terrorism or to choose not to do so.  Plants don’t have the choice to live in geologically stable ground.  I’ll keep choice and locomotion, thank you.

  • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

    Caller, science isn’t confirming your lunacy.

  • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

    Subsonic isn’t auditory!  Subsonic means below what we can hear.

    • http://riversong.wordpress.com/ Robert Riversong

      What part of “we” don’t you understand?

      • Stillin

        Greg Camp cannot listen. Cannot understand, only reacts…that’s his history.

        • http://riversong.wordpress.com/ Robert Riversong

          I know that as well as anyone. That’s why he hasn’t responded to any of my replies here – he knows I’ll tear him apart.

          • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

             No, I haven’t an infinite amount of time to waste.

          • Zig

            “There are no divisions or categories except in our minds.”

            “he knows I’ll tear him apart.”

            “It is through a re-centering in the heart that we can rediscover our
            lost ability to communicate directly with plants and other non-human

            Looks like someone needs to practice what he, sorry, they (“we”) preach. Maybe Riversong needs to evolve to a stage where he won’t feel the need to get pleasure by “tear(ing) him apart.” Oh wait, it’s all part of evolution and there’s no free will, so the desire to “tear him apart” is just a Manifestation of the Great Unfolding Through Robert Riversong.

  • http://riversong.wordpress.com/ Robert Riversong

    We will never understand or appreciate the plant world as long as we remain stuck in the reductionist, materialist scientific paradigm. The world is not a machine – it is an intelligent living organism.

    One who understands this far more thoroughly than Chamovitch is Stephen Harrod Buhner, author of The Lost Language of Plants and the Secret Teachings of Plants, in which he details the most cutting edge cardio-neurological science which demonstrates that the heart (more neurons than muscle cells) is the body’s primary resonator and capable of direct energetic communication with the rest of the living community. All indigenous and ancient peoples knew this.


    Among the Iroquois, it has been said that if a person becomes ill and needs a plant for healing the plant will stand up and begin calling, helping the person who is ill to find it. To a Heliconius butterfly, a honeybee, or a moth this would not be strange; they would understand.

    Researchers have commented that the plants, able to respond instantaneously to ecosystem changes and inputs with shifts in their chemistry, can begin immediately to produce new compounds and combinations of compounds at need. And when researcher Cleve Backster connected a lie detector to a plant, he was astonished that it could tell from his thoughts what his intentions were when he was going to burn it or tear its leaf. To a Drosophilia fly or a hawkmoth this would not seem unusual or momentous. To the Winnebago and the Iroquois this would not be strange; they would understand. For it has been said among the Winnebago that when gathering plants as medicine, if you tell them what you need them to do and ask them to put forth their strength on your behalf they will do so. And among the Iroquois, it is said that when you find the plant you are looking for you should pray to it for help. It will tell the other plants what you need and when you pick them their medicine will be strong and powerful.

    Many scientists have remarked with surprise that Luther Burbank, George Washington Carver and even the Nobel Laureate Barbara McClintock all have said that it was the plants that told them what to do, that revealed their mysteries to them. The only requirement, they commented, was that they had to care for them, to treat them with respect, to have a feeling for the organism. This would not be strange to the Winnebago, among whom it has been said that people must treat the plants like human beings, make proper offerings, and treat them with respect if they wish their help.

    • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

      The scientific method provides answers that can be verified by others.  What you’re describing is a purely personal experience.  There’s nothing wrong with that, so long as you don’t imply that there’s more to it than is there.

      • http://riversong.wordpress.com/ Robert Riversong

        Everything I describe has been verified by science, and Buhner knows the science far better than Chamovitch.

        See my post http://onpoint.wbur.org/2012/06/05/what-the-petunia-knows#comment-547945823

        And it’s easy to be so presumptuous to believe that science began with Francis Bacon. Science is based on careful empirical observation. Indigenous peoples are far better at observing their environments than we moderns, since their very lives depended on it.

    • Zig

      Did you mean to use “I” when you used “We”? Or are you projecting your own condition on to others?

  • Hheikel

    Hi Tom.  I love your show and want to request that you revisit a topic you covered three years ago – the electric car with guest Shai Agassi.  I wish you would get Shai back on the air with you and find out what kind of progress he is making.  According to betterplace.com, he is still working hard to create electric car infrastructure including battery swapping around the world.

  • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

    My computer has RAM and a hard drive.  Are you suggesting that it “knows” what’s going on?

    • http://riversong.wordpress.com/ Robert Riversong

      Probably better than you do.

      • Zig

         Creating artificial divisions and categories again, are “we”?

  • Nutricj

    Over a hundred years ago rudolf Steiner wrote about biodynamics and plant growth. Their sensitivities to the seasons, their environments, and humans…

    Love this show Tom!!!

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_Y6CO5C2HE4WM2OYGCDVWGPRXXM oldman

    “call any vegetable and the chances are good – that the vegetable will respond to you” – Mothers of Invention

    • http://riversong.wordpress.com/ Robert Riversong

      Only if you call it on a “cell” phone.

  • Reelkids

    Hi Tom and Guest,
    Just wanted to tell you a story about trees and memory. A German friend of mine from an MFA program we both attended in Berlin, did his thesis on memories of war. One of the pieces he did was about trees. He grew up in Stuttgart and the forest opposite his house saw a lot of military activity during WWII. As a child he saw remnants of the war–bullet holes in trees, distorted limbs, etc. When one of the trees was being taken down, he asked for chunks of it. He saw that the rings in the tree were regular to a point and then very irregular, then regular again.  He worked with a tree specialist and they determined that the irregular rings happened during the years of the war.  My friend then made an impression of the rings in the form of a vynl record, and when this record was played, the sound in the regularly spaced rings was mild static, but the rings that appear during WWII sound like the tree is screaming. Whether from stress or not, the tree’s history reveals much and to experience this sound piece was chilling! 

    • http://riversong.wordpress.com/ Robert Riversong

      Certainly old growth trees have long memories, which skilled arborists can read in the ring pattern.

      Imagine, then, how much more memory resides in the stone people, the truly ancient ones who have witnessed the passage of time for billions of years?

      Native peoples considered the rocks to be the memory keepers. And, curiously, modern people use quartz rocks (silica chips) to create memory in our computers and to keep time in our watches.

      • Neenytyo

        That’s interesting. I was in a Native American sweatlodge, a real one where you have to be invited to participate..and certain river rocks are burning when you go in. They are in the center of the lodge, sparkling in the darkness…they look very much like twinkling stars. It was said they are giving up their energy for us, and it felt like that in there. After they sweat ceremony, they are discarded because they then sound hollow and have been changed. It was truly an honor to participate in the sweats I was invited to, by Mohawks, Akwesasne.

        • http://riversong.wordpress.com/ Robert Riversong

          I used to lead sweat lodges. They’re all “real” as long as they’re done in reverence.

          We rarely use river rocks as they are full of water and will explode. But dry dense rocks or volcanic rocks will volunteer themselves.

          Yes, they sacrifice their souls for the sake of our healing. That is the nature of an elder being, and that is why we pray over them before lighting the fire and offer them gratitude.

          • Stillin

            I thought they were river rocks as we were by the river. Whatever they were, they didn’t explode, and they were used up in the sweat.

          • Zig

            Shhh, Riversong knows best. If he says that river rocks are rarely used, then that is so. You don’t know sh!t.

  • Regina

    Synchronicity is such a beautiful thing. I have been pondering much about plants (mostly flowers & trees), my brother recently told me “I had a conversation with the trees today”. Another friend said “The trees are so bright and green this morning. I love trees.” Hearing the stories this morning on NPR were beautiful and really touched me. Thank you for sharing & reminding us all to cherish the beauty of life.

  • Howard

    Every morning I throw out the window coffee grinds onto my blackberry and blueberry plants. Does this mean that I am actually assaulting them ? and since it’s been years that I have been doing this, could the plants have gotten used to this by noticing the coffee scent itself ?

    • http://riversong.wordpress.com/ Robert Riversong

      Decaf or regular?   ;-)

      Earthworms love coffee grounds, so you may be helping to aerate and fertilize your soil and making your bushes happy.

      Are they producing well? 

  • http://riversong.wordpress.com/ Robert Riversong

    Talking to plants can create jealousy among humans.

  • Neenytyo

    Wasn’t it Rumi who said “every blade of grass has a spirit over it saying grow, grow”…yes.

    • http://riversong.wordpress.com/ Robert Riversong

      Beyond our ideas of right-doing and wrong-doing,
      there is a field. I’ll meet you there.

      When the soul lies down in that grass,
      the world is too full to talk about.

      Ideas, language, even the phrase ‘each other’ doesn’t make sense any more.

      • Ginny Rorby

        I’d like to post a copy of your poem on my blog. Would that be okay with you?

        • http://riversong.wordpress.com/ Robert Riversong

          That’s Rumi’s poem. You’ll have to ask him. He died in 1273, so I suspect he’s “in the field beyond right-doing and wrong-doing”.

  • Maggieloveshippos

    I did my 7th grade science project on something like this!

  • www usa thinking team.com

    I have been talking to plants for years…our experimental garden overflows, the cellular intelligence, the capacity to communicate
    is deeply satisfying when you learn how to listen and feel what
    the plant is saying…they give us much information at a spiritual level as well as physical, i thank my flowers verbally, i sing to them,they respond in healing ways…water has the same living intelligence…talk to a glass of water with love before you drink it and it actually improves the feelings of health and flavor ….
      sydney gay kislevitz USA Thinking Team.com

  • Pingback: Petunias and OOO

Jul 23, 2014
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The escalated Gaza offensive. We’ll get the views from both sides and the latest developments.

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