Friday, April 6, 2018

Cocktail Conversations with Plants & Trees? Yessss! Learn the Language of Plants

Photo: Peter Wohlleben presentation screenshot
Did you know that trees nurture their offspring; that they wage war, that their roots are like brains, and that they feel pain? (That fresh cut grass is actually a cry for help!)

These concepts and more were presented at The New York Botanical Garden at the Fifth Annual Humanities Institute Symposium: Plant Intelligence.

I had a conflict in my work schedule and woefully regretted to have to miss this recent lecture at The New York Botanical Garden (NYBG) when I read the invitation in the Adult Education brochure.
This is what grabbed my attention, in a big way:
“Trees may appear to be strong and silent, but they can “talk” -- to one another, to other plants, ad to animals and insects. Discover how trees communicate via chemical signals in the air to warn each other of insect attacks, as well as through complex fungal networks underground to transfer nutrients and resources to one another - and sometimes to assist their sick tree ‘family members.’”

See, I’ve been working on a children’s book -- and in my story the plants talk to one another - and to the fauna and insects -- and yes, some deserving humans.  In my children’s writing class, I’ll never forget how one man couldn’t abide that plants could talk -- he thought it too unbelievable even for a child to imagine. I reminded him that his story was about a talking truck (!) and wondered how that was so plausible…
More on the challenging world of writing a children’s book soon. I only wanted to bring it up here as it fuels my passion for learning more about how plants do indeed talk.  And they have a lot to say...

My intense interest in plant language is not a reference to the previously kooky scenario of folks talking to their houseplants - chatting up their begonias and African Violets to insure better growth.  No. We're talking science and adventure and exploration of new worlds.

This emerging field of study is rather a consequence of advanced technology and testing that allows us to more readily understand how plants communicate.
You could say it’s like the rosetta stone - except it’s more of a "rosetta or Rose plant" - a bit of our human first steps into the mystery of understanding plant language.
It’s not them - it’s us! We just needed the tools to better communicate with them.

The lecture at NYBG featured the irrepressible Peter Wohlleben, author of The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate,

And Stefano Mancuso, author of Brilliant Green and Plant Revolution  (who, as I understand it, was socked in due to weather and unable to present.)

and Janet Browne, Historian of Science, Harvard University was the moderator.

In the video, Janet notes it has long been common that plants don’t communicate, nor do they have the ability to think or move. To whit: the “couch potato” and “vegging out!”
Ouch - that’s not nice.

On the other hand, horticulturists long believed plants possessed parallel functions to animals.
Enter Carl Linnaeus and Charles Darwin to change people’s minds about plants and their sex lives!

At the lecture, Peter helps us understand plant life - a world brimming with activity and communication. 
We learn plants communicate on a time scale that is different from ours. Meaning trees, especially, take a looooongg time. After all, they live a long time.  He cautioned tree huggers to be patient. 
Plants are living indicators of an unknown world of communications - they are sophisticated - and not just sedentary animals, as some have ignorantly referred to them as.

I think you’ll be fascinated by the presentation: Peter has a great sense of humor when discussing the plants’ and trees’ communication capabilities (you’ll laugh at his description of how a tree “eliminates!” Ahem.

You’ll be touched learning how they can reflect emotions and feelings and bond for life with their tree family. 
Trees have memory. 
Offspring learn from the parents. 
Peter provided the example of a young sapling that doesn’t drop its leaves soon enough and the winter snows and frost cracks the wood - and it feels pain - but the offspring learns from its nearby parent when to drop its leaves next time when the season demands.

Technology can now register radioactive sugar molecules permitting us the ability to track how a mother tree can talk to and nurture her offspring.  For example, she won’t take as much water during a dry summer in order to feed her child… 
Moreover, plants have the ability for kin recognition. Incredible...
Here is the link to the entire video of Peter's talk:

During the Q&A, when asked if he had any direct communication with a tree, Peter replied without missing a beat - saying  "All of us have -- albeit via a one-way communication." 
What?  How's that? 
Yes, he says research shows that our blood pressure lowers when we walk among trees. 
Trees act like medicine, he added. 
What have trees taught him?  Patience.  Living more than 200 years can have that effect...

More cool tree talk: Oaks can send out “fear branches” when surrounded by beech trees that are intent on killing the oak. There are "gang wars" in the plant kingdom! 
Bark beetles hurt the trees. 
Beech can taste the saliva of deer and can begin a wound-healing action.

Besides roots as brains and a kind of communication internet for plants, fungal networks act like neural networks - adding a method for how trees communicate in a kind of two-way/win-win symbiotic relationship with the fungi.

Trees and plants have instincts and reflexes - just like animals - and their emotions are drivers of their instincts. Isn’t that fascinating to discover? 

Plants have social lives and can learn from experience as they struggle for resources and interact with their environment. 

What Plants Talk About

The weather? The new neighbors? Like us, plants have a lot to say.

Yet another plant talk “must see” is a favorite of mine: The PBS documentary, What Plants Talk About. The visuals are breathtaking. The time lapse videos of plant communication, the interaction of plants and pollinators and predators is stunning. It’s discoveries are that “whoa, how’d they capture that,” mesmerizing images.  Click on the image and link above to watch the documentary.

I highly recommend you grab some popcorn and sit back and enjoy this astonishing look at the plant world just beckoning for more research, exploration, and the opportunity to talk to us.

Here’s the documentary overview:
“When we think about plants, we don't often associate a term like "behavior" with them, but experimental plant ecologist JC Cahill wants to change that. The University of Alberta professor maintains that plants do behave and lead anything but solitary and sedentary lives. What Plants Talk About teaches us all that plants are smarter and much more interactive than we thought!”

Networks Plus 

Speaking of working together, while I have you, I thought you’d like to know about a new partnership at the Garden. NYBG has teamed up with one of my favorite enterprises: Blue Apron, the pioneering meal-kit company. Both will promote community well-being and raise awareness of the benefits of sustainable gardening and cooking with fresh ingredients. How nice is that?

As part of Blue Apron's commitment to making delicious home cooking accessible and bringing families and communities together, Blue Apron is aligning with NYBG's Edible Academy, a new state-of-the-art garden-based education facility that will open on June 14, 2018.

The partnership includes seasonally rotating kid-friendly educational signage in the Edible Academy's Green Thumb Gardens, used by school groups, drop-in families, and community visitors.

Now you can bring the children to the Edible Academy, enjoy a true “happy meal” -- all while having a lovely conversation with the nearby plants and trees.


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