Do Plants See, Feel, or Taste?

We normally think of plants as organisms that are pretty limited in what they can do. We normally feel that only animals can move, see, feel, and taste what is going on around them. Most of us look somewhat dubiously at those who claim that talking to their house plants makes them grow better. Recent research with plants is showing a very different kind of picture. We now believe that plants have the capacity to see, feel, and taste what is going around them.

Studies by Dr. Winslow Briggs of the Carnegie Institute show that plants detect various wavelengths and use colors to tell them what the environment is like. When a small plant is in the shadow of a large plant, it will send a shoot straight up instead of forming branches. It has also been shown that plants know when it is day and when it is night. Leaf pores on plants open up to allow photosynthesis during the daytime and close at night to reduce water losses. Plants also respond to ultraviolet light by secreting a substance that is essentially a sunscreen so that they do not get sunburn. All of these processes are essentially a kind of sight, responding to light and telling one wavelength from another.

Dr. Tony Trewavas of the University of Edinburgh has shown that plants also respond to wind or touch. If plants are in a windy spot they build thicker and tougher stems to resist wind buffeting. Plant roots have molecules on the surface of their cells which taste soil for pockets of nitrate. US Department of Agriculture scientists have shown that corn, cotton, and tobacco plants recognize what kind of caterpillar is munching on them by the taste of the caterpillar's spit. The molecules in the caterpillar saliva triggers the plants to produce a turpentine like chemical defense that matches the kind of caterpillar. Different kinds of caterpillars cause different chemicals to be secreted. This turpentine-like material not only causes other plants to secret the same material, but it attracts a wasp that eats the caterpillar.

The point of all this is that we generally think of plants as very simple things that generally form the base of animal food chains. The fact of the matter is that they are highly designed life forms that are marvelously equipped. Without such highly designed equipment, plants would be eradicated by animals over grazing them. The fact that they have multiple senses gives them the ability to stay in balance with those animals that eat them. All of this is an example of complexity that defies a chance explanation. Source of data: National Wildlife, November, 1999, page70

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