It is a good thing that plants are patient, because the road to accepting their inherent intelligence has been quite long, and in some cases, still ongoing. That plants possess some kind of consciousness was a well-known belief of Luther Burbank (“The Secret Power of Plants”, 1974, 64), an American botanist, horticulturalist, and pioneer in agricultural scientists from the turn of the nineteenth century (“Luther Burbank”, Wikipedia). In his book, The Training of the Human Plant (New York, Century Co, 1922), he talks openly about the stubborn will plants have developed over the centuries and how the only way he was able to get them to change was to create a vibration of love and safety by talking to them. He was one of the first scientists on record to use talking to plants as an effective means to get them to change behavior or characteristics. He was quoted as saying that he would tell a plant, “You don’t need your defensive thorns, I will protect you.” And in time, the thorns fell away in trust (“The Secret Power of Plants”, 1974, 64). The spineless cactus is a testament to Burbank’s work–it took him two decades to convince the cactus to let go of the spines!
In addition to Burbank, there have been studies by Mark Vogel, Charles Darwin, Jagdish Chandra Bose, Franklin Loehr, and the infamous Cleve Backster all showing how human and plants interact on more than just a biological level. Most recently, scientists such as Stefano Mancuso–hailed by the New Yorker magazine as a “world changer”–evolutionary ecologist Monica Gagliano, forest ecologist Suzanne Simard, and German Forester Peter Wollheben, author of The Hidden Lives of Trees, have taken the campaign to a new level, using various branches of science to arrive at the same conclusion: plants are cognitive, intelligent beings.
So with all the research out there, what is it about our human belief system that makes it so hard for us to accept this conclusion? Is it a threat to humanity to think of plants as intelligent or are we just not ready to think about any other species at the same level as our own?
Obviously, the idea of plant intelligence opens a Pandora’s vase of questions–What should I eat now? Is it OK to pull out weeds? Should I walk on the grass? What should I do when there is a tree where I want to build my house?–but given the current state of the world, isn’t this exactly the types of questions we should be asking ourselves? We may come to the same conclusions as before, but just the act of asking the question elevates our state of awareness and moves the response from automatism to choice. And in choice, there is respect and appreciation.
In her most recent publication, “The Feminist Plant”, Monica Gagliano (with P. Gibson) wonders if “Plant ideas or stories could be considered dangerous because they embody a threat to human exceptionalism”, and in my opinion, this thought is not limited to those people that deny plant sentience. Even those that love plants can find themselves neglecting their silent friends when their needs become inconvenient. Have you ever thought if plants want to have their flowers cut or if that bonsai wanted to be constrained to stay small?
While it is easy to blame “others” for the amount of ecological, and in many cases sociological, disharmony we feel, what if our own personal behaviors are contributing to the mess? Environmentalists and naturalists remind us to protect nature, but in the privacy of their homes, are they taking into consideration the needs of their houseplants and neighborhood greenery when planning their next move, much like they would a family pet?
I think about my own work with plants. When I prune a plant, am I really listening to its needs or only thinking about my human definition of beauty? I want to think I am, but I am still not sure. Being connected does not mean having all the answers–I think it is about asking the questions in the first place. It is about using the doubt to make a better choice.
“In other words, plants are not the subject (nor the object) of science, the subject of writing or of thought. Instead they are co-creators and collaborators, a different species to live with and alongside” (Gagliano 2017, 142). If we are going to evolve into the interconnected, interspecies, co-created civilization we are dreaming of, each one of us needs to ask ourselves, with open hearts and minds, Am I ready to embrace plants as an equal?
Bolton, Brett L. 1974. The Secret Power of Plants. United States: Berkley Books
Burbank, Luther. 1922. The Training of the Human Plant. New York: Century Co
Gibson, Prudence, and Gagliano, Monica. 2017. “The Feminist Plant, changing relations with the Water Lily.” Ethics & the Environment 22: 125-147