Skip to content Skip to left sidebar Skip to right sidebar Skip to footer

Amazing little-known abilities of plants

You don’t fool the dodder, the Venus flytrap or many other plants when it somes to getting food.
Dodder, of which six species grow in Tennessee, is a twining herb with tiny white flowers.
Parasitic, it siphons nutrients from the stem of a host plant. It lacks chlorophyll and thus cannot make food on its own.
How it finds and chooses hosts was determined through research at Pennsylvania State University.
When the seedling is up, the dodder’s shoot tip moves in small circles, probing the surroundings for a host.
But it has strong culinary preferences, and not any green neighbor will do. It smells the volatile chemical aromas in the neighborhood and makes its choice based on the bouquet most to its liking.
An artificial green plant will never do; a wheat plant may, but, given a tomato anywhere within reach, the tomato plant’s odor will invariably determine the choice.
The Venus flytrap, which can be seen in the North Carolina Arboretum, lives in nutrient-poor bogs in the Carolinas.
Unable to gain sufficient food through photosynthesis alone, it moonlights as a carnivore, catching beetles and other small animals that may alight on its spread-out leaf lobes, attracted by their nectar.
The lobes spring together, interlocking hairs as their edges block escape, and the visitor becomes a meal. Yet the Venus flytrap measures the size of its prey first; if too small to make the meal worthwhile, it won’t activate the trap and the visiting creature goes unscathed.
Plants, it seems, possess quite an armamentarium of abilities in sensing and discriminating, remembering and communicating the conditions that impinge on them in their place-bound world.
What scientists have so far discovered about these has been brought together in a remarkable book published this year, from which the above examples are drawn.
In “What a Plant Knows,” David Chamovitz, who directs the Center for Plant Biosciences at Tel Aviv University, highlights the fascinating research findings, in easy-to-read and eloquent presentation.
Plants are “acutely aware of the world around them,” the author writes.
“They are aware of their visual environment; they differentiate between red, blue, far-red and UV lights and respond accordingly.
“They are aware of aromas surrounding them and respond to minute quantities of volatile compounds wafting in the air.
“They know when they are being touched and can distinguish different touches. They are aware of gravity: they can change their shapes to ensure that shoots grow up and roots grow down.
“And they are aware of their past: remembering past infections and the conditions they’ve weathered, they modify their current physiology based on these memories.”
The author notes that many genes which mediate these abilities in plants are also part of the human DNA.
In that broad sense, and in sensory abilities in which they parallel and occasionally exceed ours, “we share biology with begonias and sequoias.”
And in that we are utterly dependent on them. A new perspective on what plants know and do may enhance our appreciation of them, even for a Thanksgiving meal.