What a plant knows

Andrea Wills in American Scientist:

ScreenHunter_01 Aug. 30 13.38In grassy areas along the equator lives a tiny plant, Mimosa pudica, that has the captivating property of closing its leaves in response to touch. Rest a finger on one leaf, and that leaf and its neighbor will fold abruptly toward the stem. Brush your finger along the length of the stem and every pair of leaves will collapse in turn. For everyone who has wondered at Mimosa, the suddenly snapping Venus flytrap or the way a sunflower’s head unerringly turns to follow the sun, Daniel Chamovitz has written the perfect book.

What a Plant Knows: A Field Guide to the Senses examines the parallels and differences between plant senses and human senses by first considering how we interpret sensory inputs and then exploring how plants respond to similar inputs. Each chapter covers one sense—sight, smell, touch and hearing are covered, along with “How a Plant Knows Where It Is” and “What a Plant Remembers”—and each examines a wide taxonomical range of flora and a complementary historical range of experiments. In the book’s introduction, Chamovitz is careful to clarify his intentions in using language that might be considered anthropomorphic to explore the world of plants:

When I explore what a plant sees or smells, I am not claiming that plants have eyes or noses (or a brain that colors all sensory input with emotion). But I believe this terminology will help challenge us to think in new ways about sight, smell, what a plant is, and ultimately what we are.

A plant biologist who has held positions at Columbia and Yale and is now director of the Manna Center for Plant Biosciences at Tel Aviv University, Chamovitz is well qualified to present an archive of research on plant perception. Happily, he also has narrative dexterity: The book is delightful and a fast read.

More here.

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