Plant Intelligence

Say what?


Whoa…killer view, dude. (Western pasqueflowers, also known as Hippies-on-a-Stick.)


A new branch of plant science is researching what some call “Plant Intelligence”.

But for many other plant scientists, just seeing the words “plant” and “intelligence” side-by-side is enough to send them into paroxysms.

“Preposterous! It is impossible to think WITHOUT A BRAIN! Don’t spread this foolishness! Next thing you know, bloggers will be publishing ridiculous posts about “Plant Intelligence”, and rational thought will grind to a halt.”

But, the research shows there is something going on—if it’s not intelligence, or intention, then what is it?



Michael Pollan recently published an interesting article called “The Intelligent Plant” in the New Yorker about the new research into plants and the debates it has stirred up. He also discussed the topic with Ira Flatow on Science Friday in a segment called “Can Plants Think?”

According to Pollan, the research data clearly shows that plants are a lot more sophisticated than we ever knew. For one thing, they have more senses than we do—they have all of our five senses (including hearing) plus up to 15 senses that we do not. They “communicate” with friends or enemies, can recognize their own kin, even wage war. They hunt, forage, trick their enemies, and even “care” for their young.

They just do it all so slowly or discretely that we never paid much attention.

So, is this all a bunch of overblown hooey? Some say yes. But it is not the research they argue against…it is the descriptors. Care, hunt, think, communicate…to many scientists, these are terms that belong only to the Animal Kingdom.



And, no one is questioning the scientific data. It is clear plants are a lot more complicated than we knew. The sticking point seems to be how to describe it. Are plants really exhibiting intelligence? How can anything without a brain, without a single neuron, think?




I like the way Pollan turned the debate upside down. It’s not that plants are like us, but that we are like plants. After all, he argues, we have always considered that our brains are the locus of the Self, sort of like a Central Command Center. Yet, when you look at the brain, there is no one location you can pinpoint as being “in charge”. The brain is a network—much like networks found in the plant world. For example, in forests, trees are connected to each other through amazingly complex fungal/root networks that seem to show “behaviors” like awareness and sharing. (I wrote about this in a post last year, called Mother Trees.”




I find the subject fascinating. Intelligence, competence, instinct—whatever you call it, I think we’ll end up finding out the plant world is much richer and more interesting that we ever knew.

I can’t wait to find out more.







Are you are scientist interested in plant behavior? Check out the Society of Plant Signaling and Behavior


18 thoughts on “Plant Intelligence

  1. WONDERFUL — thanks so much for sharing this most recent study!! I think it’s absurd to think that flora doesn’t communicate — just because it doesn’t communicate in our oh-so-advanced (?!?!) human fashion, doesn’t mean it fails to do so.

    Studies have been done for decades… Rip a leaf, shots of electricity reverberate throughout. When a tree wanes, it’s been shown to release its nutrients via its root systems to healthier neighboring trees. Now if that’s not communication…?

    “I was just sittin’ here enjoyin’ the company. Plants got a lot to say, if you take the time to listen.” -Eeyore 🙂

    • Ah, the wisdom of Eeyore! Love it!
      I love how the world of nature keeps surprising us with its complexities. But, I think in the past when humans lived closer to nature, they probably wouldn’t have been so surprised, though. Today, so many people seem to have lost touch.

  2. I have always loved the winter “fallow” season of plants, when they take a break, relax and re-charge their batteries. Smarter than we are, obviously. We inflict on ourselves what Thich Nhat Hahn calls “the violence of too much to do”.

    • So true! My favorite time of year is springtime. Here in Seattle, it starts early and I always love to see the plants waking up. Already, the Indian Plum and the Red flowering currant are starting to flower.

  3. I came across your site though the Wild Beat blog. I find your illustrations so nice and the amount of detail is amazing. I thought this kind of art no longer existed (your environmental illustrations) and that computers did most of the work. I decided to join in on this topic because I have an all-plant blog and I’m now almost exclusively drawn to plants. What I think about plants is as follows: I think they are sentient organisms; to put it in a poetic fashion:

    “Plants are earth’s magic carpet which beautify, shelter and feed all life on earth; and beneath its cover lies a clock. This clock is the most silent one on earth, yet it’s ticking away as we walk on lawns, parks, and sidewalks. Silence is its mode, yet beautiful it does speak with flowers, to some ears. Its brain is the biological clock that will sustain you on earth, as well discipline your life, to then release you again to the wild. All this does, that old clock…”

    • What a lovely comment/poem! I too have been increasingly drawn to the plant world, especially the plants and trees in our Pacific Northwest old growth forests. When I’m there, I feel such peace! When I read about the work of Prof. Suzanne Simard in Canada, I realized that these forests get more complex and fascinating the more you know. There’s a lot of beautiful mysteries in there! Thanks for visiting!
      (I visited your blog – your photos are gorgeous!)

      • I just watched the Nature program where Prof. Simard is tracking the carbon emitted by the old Douglas firs to the young trees. I loved the program. It also showed how the weeds compete for space underground, but surprisingly, native weeds such as Lupine are also able to protect themselves! I caught the program a bit late, so I have to watch it from the beginning.

        • I’m glad you enjoyed it! I thought it was fascinating, too. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could watch plants around us in sped-up time so we could really see all the cool things they do? Mostly, I think people tend to think of them as just inanimate structures.

          • The whole episode can be watched here:

            When I was younger I didn’t even look at plants. I discovered my green thumb a year ago now. What I enjoy the most now is geminating my own seeds. For me this is the most exciting and animated part of plants, when you see those seeds sprout and each day they get bigger. I’m germinating about 5 different trees now, and I’m trying to get into palms which take a lot longer but I’m beginning to take an interest in that now. The germination is simply amazing.

    • I know! We’ll need to develop a gizzard-like organ, I guess. But, actually, plants’ network-like construction means you can still eat part of it without killing it. (But, we might want to re-think lawn-mowing. Apparently the smell of freshly mown grass is a signal the plant emits to announce its injury. A plant version of a scream, if you will.)

      • I agree with Maria with respect to the loveliness of your work.

        I’m a vegetarian so I relate to this quandary. 🙂 I disagree with those who use this new research to suggest that since we can’t avoid causing suffering, that we might as well cause suffering across the board. (Believe it or not, there are those who use plant intelligence discussions to advocate for animal exploitation.) In any event, at bare minimum, in my ideal world. humans ought to rethink their entire relationship to the natural realm and commit to a path of least harm.

        • Oh, forgot to say thank you for the link to the article. I hadn’t seen it when it was published and it’s utterly fascinating in terms of what we do and don’t know, and assessing the adaptations (or learning behaviors?) of these beautiful entities in greens, reds and blues.

        • Thank you, Ingrid. I agree — we need a path that recognizes nature as a living system rather than merely an untapped resource. We still need to eat, but we should figure out ways to do it more sustainably and with less cruelty.

  4. I think your images are stunning and provocative and that there should be more words in the Engish language to describe all the transactions that happen in the natural world.

    • Thanks, Peggy!
      It’s funny though, people seem to have no problem using the language of intelligence for machines. Artificial Intelligence is practically mainstream, with companies like Google scooping up AI companies for hundreds of millions of dollars. Personally, I’d be more comfortable in a world that recognizes Intelligence in Nature before we start giving over intelligence to machines.

  5. ” It’s not that plants are like us, but that we are like plants.”

    This is more true of me some days than others. Especially the Western Pasqueflowers.

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