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Plant Intelligence

By Dr. Jillian Stansbury

Dr. Jillian Stansbury

Are Plants Conscious?
Plants are certainly successful as a life form. There is evidence that they have “skills,” and the more we examine these skills, the more evidence of “intelligence” we see. The research has matured to the degree that even the staunchest academics cannot deny that plants fulfill all the definitions of “intelligence” — the ability of an organism to respond to environmental stimuli and challenges, interpret sensation, learn and remember, make informed decisions, and solve problems creatively.

Plant Neurobiology
Plants are sensitive organisms, possessing a nervous system, albeit different than that of animals. In mammals, our brains, nerves and neural nets enable memory and learning. Even though plants have no equivalent organs or tissues, they respond to environmental clues via subtle molecular and electromagnetic signals. Plants harbor chemical-filled vesicles, analogous to the neurotransmitter-filled vesicles of animal neurons, that direct responses to stressors such as dehydration, over hydration, varying temperature, tactile stimuli, environmental cues, volatilized chemicals, etc.

Luigi Galvani first demonstrated that electrical stimulation would cause frogs’ legs to twitch, leading to the earliest nerve conduction research. Some obviously “sensitive plants” were tested, such as Mimosa pudica, and it was realized that they too, react to electrical stimuli. In fact, all plants respond to a variety of stimuli, and via holding water and molecules in a semi-crystalline array, flickers and waves can move through this ordered network and enable electrical, tactile and chemical responses as sensitive as those of animals. Roots are especially electromagnetically active, and Charles Darwin reported that plants’ “root brains” display intelligence. Cognition appears to be a more wholographic and systemic phenomenon in plants, but this decentralization should not necessarily make it less sophisticated than the central nervous system of animals.

Dr. Jillian Stansbury, after a day of medicinal plant collecting with Chief Liborio Maynus of the Bora tribe.

 

Individual versus Group Wills

Nietzsche contended that a plant’s search for nutrients was a manifestation of its will. My own studies, and overlap with concepts from Plant Spirit Medicine, help me to recognize that all plants exert their “will” to survive in creative ways, overcoming the challenges of drought, salt marshes, insect predation, wind storms, and a myriad of other issues in unique ways. The manner in which plants have expressed their will to survive has given them skills, and even personalities. There are strong plants and weak plants, shy plants and aggressive plants, stoic plants and dramatic plants. While humans have individual wills, plants appear to have group wills. Some animals which are most linked to humans, such as dogs and cats, seem to have individual personalities, but many animals, and all plants display a personality that is expressed identically by every member of the species. For example, while there may be aggressive dogs and lazy dogs, or skittish cats and social cats, one sparrow is more or less the same, personality-wise, as another sparrow, and one goldfish is more or less identical to the next. In the same way, one dandelion is identical to another dandelion growing on another continent. Ditto that a lotus blossom, a tomato or a coconut tree. Plants express a group spirit that is shared collectively among the species. Some healers work not with just the molecular constituents in plant, such as its curcumin, but rather choose specific plants based on their strength, grounding tendency, or sharp boundaries needed by the patient.

The Shape and Form of Plants

Plants map out their surroundings, make decisions such as preferring a certain patch of soil over another, rejecting some pollen sharing the same alleles, or blooming lower to the ground when they have been mowed down. Plants may have a memory of winter and not be fooled into breaking dormancy during an unusual February warm spell, “knowing” that real spring is not until April. Plants can receive chemical or vibratory forms of information from the nonlocal environment, and both emit and interpret volatile compounds able to travel significant distances. They may produce toxins, for example, in response to learning that a herd of elk is just 100 miles away.

Plants are aware of the other life forms with which they coexist and may have willfully offered nectar to beneficial insects, domiciles to insect work crews, and beautifully patterned landing platforms to attract pollinators, via the long patient process of co-evolution, where specific shapes and forms evolve as a creative survival tactic. The ancient notion of the Doctrine of Signatures contends that the shape, color, pattern and form of a plant has significance, and can hint at its medicinal and nutritional qualities. Insects certainly “read” the signature of plants, animals can of course taste sugar and see the beauty of ripe fruits, but highly aware humans may be able to “read” other information about a plant by its very appearance. Plants display beauty that seems intended for animal eyes, aroma intended for olfactory apparati, and all manner of creative seed dispersal methods involving other creatures to do their bidding. Clever that.

Don’t Be So Hasty — Differences in Time Scale Between Plants and Animals

J.R Tolkien’s Ents, the living, walking tree creatures, tell the hobbits “not to be so hasty!” Human time frame is much faster than plants. Although some bamboos species can grow a centimeter per hour, and some seaweed many feet in a single day, in general, human beings operate in second- and minute-based time scales, while plants usually operate in weeks, months, year long, and even decade-based time scales. Through time lapse photography we may appreciate the movements, responsiveness, and willfulness of plants, but may look hastily for physiology with which we are familiar, and miss physiology operating in plants’ time frames. It takes time for us to see the personalities of plants, but most gardeners come to recognize plants that are rather annoying (Bittersweet Nightshade, Buttercups), plants that are rather charming (Johnny Jump Ups), and plants that are touchy drama queens (Begonias). If you don’t “get” the anthropomorphic adjectives of annoying, touchy and charming, just spend more time with these plants and you will.

Making curare, a plant poison used for hunting, with Cesar, chief of the Yaguas tribe outside of Iquitos, Peru.


Dr Jillian Stansbury leads ethnobotany field courses in Peru each July and studies Plantas Maestras, plants as teachers, with four different Amazonian tribes. Visit her website by clicking here.

Contact Dr. Stansbury at (360) 687-4492 or jstansbury@nunm.edu to receive current class schedules and to learn about this year’s ethnobotanical study tour, “The Mystical and Medicinal Plants of the Andes and Amazon.”

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This article appears in:
2017 Catalyst, Issue 6: Plant Medicine

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