Did you know that the smell of freshly cut grass that welcomes us to summer is actually plants warning their neighbors of danger? Or that there are “Mother Trees” that can recognize and nurture their own babies within a complex forest?
What if we told you there is actually something called the “World Wood Web?”
Plants are communicating with each other in wildly complex and remarkable ways that we have been in the dark about until very recently. The languages, pathways, and connections are about as mind-bending as the following fun image: a cross-section of a blade of grass, that seems to be saying something we might need to hear:
The rest of the plant world may have a few things to say too; a point that will be perfectly clear and remarkably fun to consider by the end of this article.
I’m not going to ramble on here today. I’ll let some well-spoken scientists take us on a journey into the conversation of the outdoor world!
First up, a short primer to give us some mental images. Here’s how the wonder in some solid science changes everything we thought we knew about “communication.”
Now that we’ve got the basics, – and that’s very basic compared to what is coming – let’s dive deeper and understand the full scope of this wonder with a great TED speaker, Suzanne Simard. She is a brilliant original thinker and professor of forest ecology at the University of British Columbia. Suzanne has done groundbreaking work that continues to reveal how entire plant communities communicate in ways that will help us become radically better stewards of plant ecosystems.
Here’s a leap in possibility! Enjoy…
Insights like this kick the edges of impossibility way down the road.
A Bonus Talk to Really Inspire a Stretch!
And since we are out there on our edges, let’s take a little bonus journey with one of the most profound thinkers in this new field of study. I used the word “profound” quite purposefully because that’s where we end up at the end of this next TED Talk. Florianne Koechlin gives us even more fun and fascinating details about plant communication. Additionally, she guides us to an entirely new place, a mindset that might someday be the common wisdom in a world much different than the one we are struggling to hold together now.
Get a favorite beverage and take some time to let this next talk soak in a bit.
Take a look and see what you think!
Now that literally gets to the heart of the matter, doesn’t it!?
Will we someday find ourselves asking – with all seriousness – do plants have dignity? Not that long ago we didn’t question assigning bathrooms and drinking fountains to people by the color of people’s skin! Grappling with new questions appears to be how we’ve made progress for 40,000 years.
Oh! As to that remarkable photo we opened with…
The photo is a close-up image of an important species of grass that is holding the beaches together in a unique part of the English coastline. It’s a compelling, fun photo with all the “happy faces” that seem like they are ready to blurt out something profound.
We tracked down the scientist who took this photo – author/photographer, Phillip Gates – who taught at Durhan University and has written about natural history for The Guardian for years. He was delighted to hear we were pointing people to this remarkable topic of plant communication.
If you are curious, here’s what Phil said about this extraordinary photo when we contacted him about using it:
“I originally took the picture in 1984. When I went to Durham (UK) university I discovered that someone had bought a fabulous Leitz fluorescence microscope, a beautiful instrument in a fitted mahogany case with every conceivable accessory, including a Leica 3 camera. It must have cost a fortune and as far as I could tell no one had ever used it. So on Friday afternoons, if I had nothing special to do, I sometimes wandered down to the botanic garden and collected some specimens then spent a few hours cutting, staining and photographing thin sections with fluorescent dyes. It was hit and miss, more like alchemy than science, but I figured out a way to stain thin sections in Auramine O, that made lignin fluoresce yellow in blue excitation, wash the sections, then counterstain in calcofluor, which made cellulose fluoresce blue in ultra violet light. One Friday afternoon, by messing around with various staining times and then, from the enormous numbers of permutations of excitation filters and barrier filters, hitting on an excitation wavelength that made both fluoresce simultaneously, I achieved that result. I could never repeat it but had 36 beautiful exposures. One of them won a prize in the 1985 Nikon Small World photomicrography competition. Images like this have been vastly improved on with confocal laser scanning microscopy but people became interested again when I put it on the web, thanks to the invention of emojis. I hope the image stimulates the imagination of students who have never taken much interest in plant anatomy.”
I suspect there’s a common thread that runs through Phil’s work style and the two TED speakers we featured today: a wild curiosity to understand all that is and all that may be possible.
Thanks to all the great people featured in today’s EWC article. They are surely proving that this is still an amazing world! Now scroll to the bottom of this page and you’ll find a few more articles about original thinkers in other disciplines.
Want to read more about all this plant communication wonder? Here’s a fabulous article by Smithsonian.
Stay open, curious and optimistic!
~ Dr. Lynda
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- “Trees Can Talk to Each Other. Seriously.” YouTube, FUSION, 16 June 2017, www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tuxc9URHYFc. ↩
- Simard, Suzanne. “How Trees Talk to Each Other | Suzanne Simard.” YouTube, TED, 30 Aug. 2016, www.youtube.com/watch?v=Un2yBgIAxYs. ↩
- Koechlin, Florianne. “Tomatoes Talk, Birch Trees Learn – Do Plants Have Dignity? | Florianne Koechlin | TEDxZurich.” YouTube, TEDx Talks, 11 Jan. 2016, www.youtube.com/watch?v=i8YnvMpcrVI. ↩