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Series of photographs for the book -The Art of acclimating plants, the garden of the Villa Thuret - by Catherine Ducatillion and Landy Blanc-Chabaud, published by Editions Quae. © INRA, SLAGMULDER Christian

Plants also feel, move and communicate!

By Pascale Mollier, translated by Vicky Hawken
Updated on 09/04/2014
Published on 07/30/2014

In their own way, plants are capable of feeling and communicating.  Research is becoming increasingly interested in these areas and is evidencing original mechanisms that underlie the social existence of the plant world.

"An animal that sleeps" was how Buffon described a plant in 1753. This idea was taken up in 1800 by the French physiologist Bichat: "Thus it might be said that the plant is only the sketch, or rather the framework, of the animal; to form the latter, it is only necessary to clothe the former with an apparatus of external organs capable of establishing relationships."

Therefore, since Aristotle, plants had been perceived as passive organisms that only fulfil growth and nutritional functions, without any relationships or interactions with the environment.

But studies initiated in the mid-19th century by Darwin and his son, and by several German physiologists, showed that plants are in fact sensitive and reactive to external disturbances.

Subsequent research confirmed that plants can perceive their environment and adapt to it through their movements: they straighten their stems if they have been bent by the wind, move away from their neighbours, grow towards the light.  Like animals, they are endowed with feelings, vision and smell, but these senses are particular for being spread throughout their surface and not located in specialised organs.

They are also capable of communicating their perceptions to other plants, of emitting stress signals and developing relationships with fungi and bacteria.

These aspects are now becoming increasingly well understood, and in the light of recent research, plants are slowly regaining their place in the scale of living organisms.