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What The Petunia Knows

This program is rebroadcast from June 5, 2012. A broader network technical issue beyond our control prevented the originally scheduled Nickel Creek interview from airing today. Our apologies! — On Point Staff.

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

Guests

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

The 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.”

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  • Mike

    We know that there is a kind of higherarchy in the animal kingdom because we often hear phrases and statements like the top of the food chain. We also know there are simple plants like plankton and complex plants like the Venus fly trap. Is there a hierarchy of intelligence in the plant kingdom?

  • CambridgeStephen

    This is certainly fun, but you are conflating so many different meanings into simple words like “communicate” that it the discussion itself allows listeners to hear whatever they want. Let me give a facetious example:

    Is the moon “communicating” with the earth when it “responds” to the gravity of the earth? Does the earth “calling” out to the moon to stay close? Must the moon and the earth therefore speak the same “language”? This is obviously all nonsensical, though poetically playful.

    There are force fields and chemical exchanges throughout nature that can be loosely (or poetically) thought of as “communication”. “Signals” get sent and signals get received in many ways, but that doesn’t mean there is necessarily a “consciousness” at work. One would need to first define a hierarchy of types of “consciousness” for this to be a remotely meaningful discussion.

    Real science requires both playful imagination and the precise use of language, which requires one to define one’s terms quite carefully. I think this program for all its imagination, is using language very sloppily.

    • Mike Muszynski

      Thank You!! I agree wholeheartedly. As a plant scientist I am grateful for any discussion that engages the public in thinking about plant biology. But the inaccurate use of language makes me cringe and I think there was a net negative impact from this show.

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