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If only plants could talk

By Hannah Pitt, University of the West of England

What am I being shown? Image Credit: Hannah Pitt

What am I being shown? Image Credit: Hannah Pitt

Plant scientists at Virginia Tech recently reported their discovery of communication between a parasitic plant and its host. By exchanging genetic material the parasite seemed to be urging the host to lower defences to its invasion. The researchers described it as a form of dialogue between the two, with one communicating new information to the other. This revelation adds a further form of plant conversation to others previously recognised in which plants exchange messages in the form of chemicals or electrical signals.

These quite capable forms of floral communication come as a surprise to many because plants have long been seen as the least active or intelligent living beings. In a hierarchy with humans at the pinnacle, plants sit well beneath them and other animals. But human geographers are increasingly recognising that this portrayal is misguided. The more we know about what plants do, the harder it is to see them as unintelligent. And there is an ethical imperative pushing us to recognise plants’ abilities for the habit of regarding flora as passive and insentient has allowed humans to dominate and neglect it, with serious ecological repercussions.

This is a topic ripe for geographic investigation because plants are everywhere and make a significant difference to places. Human geographers have made interesting progress with research into human-plant interactions. In my contribution to Area I explore how they tackle this, and examine some of the ways social scientists like me learn what plants are doing. I invited gardeners to act as guides and encouraged them to show me what they do with plants. Their expertise taught me much about plants’ actions and capabilities because good gardeners have to understand how they grow. Techniques such as time-lapse photography helped to show plants growing and moving. By speeding up and zooming in on processes which are otherwise difficult to perceive it was possible to see plants as active and mobile.

These methods, guided by the intention of paying close attention to plants were helpful, and ensured that plants ‘showed up’ in the research. But, unlike the team at Virginia Tech I’m not very skilled in understanding what plants have to say. In the paper I conclude that the techniques I used were limited because plants speak a language social scientists don’t understand. To really research plants as independent active beings, human geographers will need to become skilled in communicating with them or look to experts such as botanists to act as interpreters. Because plants can talk, we just need to know how to listen.

About the author: Dr Hannah Pitt is a Research Associate within the Department of Health and Social Science at the University of the West of England. Hannah is currently working on research projects which evaluate programmes related to food, public health and sustainability. 

 Pitt, H. (2014), On showing and being shown plants – a guide to methods for more-than-human geography. Area. doi: 10.1111/area.12145

60-world2 Maynard, G. (2014) Prince Charles was right all along: Plants really can talk to each other Express