What Plants Talk About

spedigrees z4VTJuly 5, 2014

I was wondering if anyone besides myself has seen the program on PBS (the Nature series) by this name "What Plants Talk About?"

This show echoed what an earlier program on another channel had discussed of how plants appear to engage in thought and take actions despite the lack of a brain. In the earlier program, researchers investigated the mysterious death of a large number of deaths of giraffes. They traced this to tannin poisoning. The animals had been browsing on a type of thorny tree that formed part of their natural diet, whose leaves normally contained small, harmless amounts of tannin. However during a severe drought when no other vegetation was available, the trees apparently turned up the tannin supply to kill the giraffes and prevent being killed themselves by overgrazing. Plants/trees unable to move away to escape predation apparently can resort to other means of self-defense.

In the later program cited in this thread, all sorts of plant behaviors were examined. For instance plants of the same family, when planted in pots together, restricted their root growth so as to allow their relatives an equal measure of the available nutrients. Unrelated plants' roots after a time were intermeshed in attempts by each plant to seize as many nutrients as each could grab.

The researchers then mixed carbon based fertilizer with radioactive material and fed it to large trees in a forest. They returned a week later with a Geiger counter and discovered that the plant food had been distributed throughout the "mother trees" and distributed by them to their offspring, the largest proportion of the material going to the smallest and most vulnerable of their seedlings. It is remarkable to learn how the trees take care of their own, and revealing as to why transplanted seedlings do not do as well on their own in new surroundings. It makes me feel badly for the little "orphan" trees I have been planting in recent years as part of my reforestation effort.

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mjc_molie(z6 CT)

Sped, very interesting post. I'm sorry I didn't see this program ..... it sounds like Michael Pollan's book The Botany of Desire. Great book!

    Bookmark   July 6, 2014 at 11:01AM
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corunum z6 CT(6)

Hi Sped - good post. Once I see the program, I'll be back.

Molie, and everyone else who may want to see it, you can - online. Link below should work.

Here is a link that might be useful: PBS: What Plants Talk About

    Bookmark   July 6, 2014 at 11:54AM
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I just watched it- quite fascinating! Thanks for letting us know about the program (and thanks to corunum for posting the link).

    Bookmark   July 6, 2014 at 12:57PM
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corunum z6 CT(6)

Well, Sped, that was one of the best plant Nature programs! The other one that I recall was about seeds - equally as fascinating. For me, the subject is way too big to absorb and integrate into one's belief and knowledge systems, so I'll keep it at face value and digest it all slowly. I have every confidence that with your love of all-things-green, your 'orphan' trees will become strong mothers.

Thanks so much for bringing this to our attention. Glad I was able to see it.

    Bookmark   July 6, 2014 at 3:48PM
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mjc_molie(z6 CT)

Great program, Sped, I really enjoyed it... and thank you, Jane, for the link. This fascinating show did recall some of The Botany of Desire in that Pollan wrote about what plants do to perpetuate themselves and survive.


    Bookmark   July 6, 2014 at 5:06PM
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claireplymouth z6b coastal MA

spedigrees: I hadn't seen the program so I just watched it. It opens up a lot of issues, some of which I've thought about and some I hadn't.

If plants are aware of each other, it may matter which plants are brought together in a community (such as your garden).

Do some plants like certain plant species and dislike others?

Is it better to plant more than one of a certain species (besides the esthetics) to provide a social group? This would relate to your orphan trees which would find a new family.

Is a single specimen tree lonely?

And if plants, and trees in particular, are intelligent, what is our role as gardeners in "managing" them. Are we stewards? How do we justify controlling the lives of intelligent beings? Do we need to determine humane ways of meddling in their lives as we do for animals we farm?

Not easy questions, thanks for raising the issue.


    Bookmark   July 6, 2014 at 6:28PM
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spedigrees z4VT

Interesting questions Claire. I've been pondering the same questions myself.

I think one cannot create an artificial family of trees unless you were to plant trees that were all seedlings of a single parent tree, because unrelated trees of the same species do not recognize one another as kin.

I read somewhere that maples create an unfriendly environment for certain types of other trees and plants, and certainly Norway maples are known to be hostile and invasive to other species. So some trees seemingly make life difficult for other species. I had that somewhat in mind when planting maples on the north side of the property. I planted birch in the same area, as one very often sees birch and maple growing together in apparent harmony. But I've planted no other species there.

On the south side I planted one area in evergreens (pine and spruce) and a lower area in apples and crabapples. The latter area has the most likelihood of becoming a true family group soonest because of the apples dropped from an existing mature wild apple tree. The 4 nursery-bought crabapples are thriving there, so probably if conditions are right for one type of apple, every apple planted there will thrive. That spot gets more moisture than other areas that are better drained, and I've found that apple trees will thrive in very wet areas that would drown other tree species.

Then again, in the "wild" woods up on my hillside, all manner of tree species have sprung up and are seemingly coexisting, although who knows what underground root battles, or at least competitions, are taking place. There seem to be enough nutrients for everyone up there, and also all of these young trees are the progeny of parent trees growing further up the hill in the old forest to the other side of our property.

Because I leave the 3 newly (artificially) reforested areas unmowed, the trees within will eventually start to produce their own offspring, but that is a long time in the future, probably long after we are gone. I try not to think about what atrocities a new owner may someday visit upon our trees and land.

The question of a lonely single tree also has occurred to me. My most beloved tree is this lovely flowering crabapple in my front yard in the photo. It's a 'profusion' variety, a semi-weeping tree with gorgeous blossoms in the spring. It's really come into its own from the tiny twig I planed over a decade ago. And yet the poor thing keeps trying to procreate, sending up tiny shoots that are necessarily cut down with each mowing of the lawn around it.

Interesting discussion that has made us see our trees in a new light.

    Bookmark   July 8, 2014 at 12:06PM
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spedigrees z4VT

Thank you Molie, for the reading suggestion of 'The Botany of Desire' by Michael Pollan. I intend to read it!

    Bookmark   July 8, 2014 at 12:08PM
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It's a fascinating book! I'm looking forward to seeing the PBS show when I have the time to sit still for an hour or so, so thanks, Sped.

This reminds me of a plant in my garden, Lychnis viscaria (aka German catchfly) that, I once read, produces a compound in the soil that actually benefits other plants. I've always wondered why it would be useful for any perennial to encourage other plants. I have a guess, but I'd really like a better answer - I'm thinking that maybe it has to do with catchfly growing in sandy, barren areas, where having other, maybe more robust, plants would help keep the soil in place. Just a guess - maybe the PBS show will answer this for me.

    Bookmark   July 26, 2014 at 6:24PM
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Persimmons(6b Southern Mass)

This is an interesting concept to bring to light. Despite the fact that it's 1130, I plan to watch some of What Plants Talk About before I fall asleep.

Most plants that invigorate the soil with oils or acids (families on the top of my mind are asters and mints) should be classified this way too, with the way that the chemicals repel pests. The idea that plants logically or consciously compete and align via chemical warfare is not farfetched and makes companion planting seem analogous to human culture.

Now to watch this video..

    Bookmark   July 26, 2014 at 11:38PM
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