Doco Review: What Plants Talk About
This PBS documentary about the hidden life of plants opens up fundamental questions about the way we view plants through the use of beautiful videography, testimony from scientists and some not so beautiful puns.
Science teaches us that like all living things, plants compete with one another for survival. But if you’re like I was, this means that if plant A is better suited to live in a particular environment it will out-survive Plant B. Simple. Well, maybe not.
This documentary puts that idea to shame. Plants are capable of so much more than we give them credit for. In this documentary, the use of incredible time-lapse video footage allows the viewer to alter their perspective and view events on the plants’ time-scale. With this tool, the images show plants pushing and shoving each other to receive the most sunlight or duelling below the ground for the most nutrient rich soils, fighting for survival.
More incredibly the documentary explains that the most important tool a plant has to maintain its survival is chemical signalling. Immediately I thought to myself, this is exactly how we as humans survive. Chemical signalling within our nervous system governs our entire existence. Plants also use chemicals to communicate, excreting toxic chemicals to ward off other plants and predators, employing protective chemicals to survive in toxic environments, and calling for help when attacked.
The documentary demonstrated that plants are intertwined with the life of insects like I had never imagined. A plant can sense which insect is eating it (based on chemical sensors) and then call for the correct predator using specific chemical signals. For example, a plant can send a different chemical signal if a caterpillar is eating its leaves, compared to a beetle eating them, resulting in the recruitment of a different predator. These plants have many “tricks up their leaves”.
In addition, the documentary explores whether plants can recognize their relatives. As it turns out, they can. Through the recognition of familiar chemical signals, an individual plant will compete less with the plants that it is related to. Also, in dense forests, the larger “mother trees” will shuttle nutrients through their roots and webs of fungi to the smallest and most vulnerable trees, aiding in their survival. And yes, the documentary makes the comparison to Avatar and the “Home Tree”.
While this documentary highlights many amazing abilities that plants have, I just kept wondering about the chemistry (disclaimer: I am a chemist). What are these chemical messengers? What are the receptors for these chemical signals like in plants? A good documentary gets you thinking, and this one did just that. And for me the level of thought went one step further because I am a vegan. I wondered, if these plants can sense attacks and send help signals, are they that much different than animals? Since I can’t see a plant move with purpose (without time-lapse technology), or look into its eyes its difficult to equate these two beings. But clearly there is much more to a plant than I thought before.
So what happens when we drug plants with pesticides? How are we changing their chemical signalling? Is it different than when cattle are pumped with hormones? This documentary made me ask a lot of questions. But what I took away most, was that no matter what I am eating or what environment I find myself a part of, I need to be more connected. When I walk near a plant, sometimes its fragrant chemicals fill my nose. But what this documentary showed me is that all living things are constantly communicating with their environment, whether I can sense it or not.
I highly recommend you watch What Plants Talk About.
Related Past Events:
- Prof Chris Rapley CBE Presents: An Inconvenient Truth
- Step into the garden: Fascinating plant tours
- Film club: Donated to science
- SCINEMA 2012: Science Meets Cinema
- Film club: Microbes to macrobes: The story of Frank Fenner
- A Week In Science – 10 May 2013
- Paleodictyon: The Creature That Has Never Been Seen
- A story-telling scientist
- The Sci-cademy Awards
- Trees Breathe Easy