Monday, December 8, 2008

Do Plants Communicate?

During harvest time I was interviewed by a local writer on the subject of garden vegetable oddities. He shared with me that a citizen gardener whom had grown a Mickey Mouse-eared tomato had gotten him on the phone, and how terribly excited the caller was, believing in miracles. A tomato that looks exactly like Mickey Mouse!

The journalist emailed me the pictures taken by the breathless gardener of his curiosity. I replied that I thought the tomato resembled the shape of a simple molecule more than Disney's famed cartoon character: the fruit was composed of three, smooth, conjoined orbs; lacking eyes, a pointed nose, and whiskers, which I do believe are essential features on Mickey's head. Call me picky.

In my opinion I was being prompted to exclaim this tomato phenomenon as, well, phenomenal, but my pulse remained steady. I explained to the journalist that plants do all kinds of crazy stuff, especially in their tendency to mimic the sexual organs of humans (don't tell me you've never seen a phallic gourd). A three-pronged tomato was, to me, not as amusing or unusual as the yams I had judged at the county fair this summer, resembling bug-eyed chihuahuas or angry old men.

Scientists have known for years that our human brains require recognizable data in order to cognate, and so what we at first do not recognize as "normal" we match with what we already know, the same way we see whales and horses in cloud formations. Or, for some, the Virgin Mary on a french fry.

It's unquestionably fun to look for patterns in nature. The more patterns we learn to recognize the deeper our scientific appreciation and understanding of the natural world. Teaching children how to identify trees by their leaf shapes, for example, is something most of us can relate to. And what a pleasure it is when the child sees the face of a fox in a blob of mildew on the freshly picked leaf!

A grown-up gardener should pause to remind herself that in the age of industrial macro-farms we rarely have an opportunity to glimpse nature's creative whimsy because we no longer get our hands dirty. When all of our edible plants come from a grocery store; hybridized, cultivated and preselected for absolute uniformity, it should not be surprising that when a gardener really sees nature unfiltered, she will be taken aback. It is when a gardener expects to pull a few bizarre-looking carrots from the soil that she has re-established an honest dialogue with nature.

There is much exploration to be done on exactly how plants do communicate, - with one another, even with us if at all possible. But it is the quiet mysteries of plants I hold in the highest regard. Knowing that my tomatoes are not scheming to intentionally look like a billion-dollar trademark by way of Mickey Mouse, or trying to bring forth religious miracles, or even attempting to appeal to my narcissism in any way whatsoever is profoundly satisfying.

Writer Mark Germer stated it well:

"Recent work on information processing (even kin recognition) in plants suggests that there may be more going on there than we now understand; as for birds and mammals, it has long been appreciated that they are perfectly capable of deception and subversion. For my part, I don't find these things odd or disturbing, as it's the continuity of all life that intrigues me most. Humans are not alone in their baseness -- though a few may be alone in their desire to rise above it."

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