Plant Altruism

A growing body of research supports the idea that plants provide a helping hand (so to speak) to other plants. The research is summarized in an article in the January online issue of Science magazine.

2014-08-09 17.34.04 'Italian White sunflower
‘Italian White’ sunflower

I was introduced to the idea that plants cooperate with each other by the excellent book The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben. Wohlleben describes a sort of arboreal social security system utilizing underground fungal networks, through which trees redistribute resources and provide for mutual defense.

Where Wohlleben portrays trees of the same species as having a communal life, the research described in the Science article focuses on how closely related herbaceous plants provide mutual assistance. But both portray plants as more aware and active than previously thought in terms of how they relate to each other and their environment.

For example, annual sunflowers (Helianthus annuus) space their leaves so as not to shade nearby relatives. Drawing from this insight, researchers found that they could plant sunflowers that are close kin much more densely than is normal in commercial agriculture. These dense plantings produced 47% more oil from the resulting seeds.

Other research has found that plants will restrain their root growth in order to make space for their close relatives, and that they may stimulate their kin to launch a stronger chemical defense against herbivores.

One question not answered in the article is what constitutes “close kin” within the context of a plant species.

In any case, I like this line of research because it makes plants appear to be more engaged with the world, more mysterious, and more interesting. It also provides a portrait of the natural world in which cooperation and mutual aid provide a counterweight to the struggle of all against all. Anyhow, read the article and see what you think.


70 Comments on “Plant Altruism”

  1. What in interesting topic. I have never written about it. I sometimes write about how violent some plants are to those that they compete with; particularly how some Californian plants burn hot enough to incinerate the seed of the competition, while theirs are safe in well insulated fruiting structures, or in the ground.

  2. A fascinating idea. I have honey fungus all round my garden, I like to imagine my apple trees and roses all shouting to each other: ‘Hey watch out, its coming close to you. Behind you! Now to the left, whoops, I’ll see if I can head it off!’

  3. I’d heard about the trees’ interactions, and read a bit about it, but this takes it a step further. The article in Science was fascinating, and a reminder of how little we know. The research certainly casts “Little Shop of Horrors” in a different light.

  4. Have you read the recent discovery that plants have ears? Apparently, the flowers are the ears and they can hear the bees/butterflies/beneficial insects and accordingly they increase/decrease pollen production. I truly feel sad in killing any weed.

  5. This is a fascinating topic! I have read that plants can even help unrelated species. For example, if a corn plant is attacked by a harmful insect, it can send out warnings to other nearby plants, including squash and bean plants ! Also, artificial insecticides can interfere with a plant’s natural defenses, making the plant more susceptible and dependent on the artificial chemicals. Definitely more research is needed.

  6. This is a fascinating topic. I read The Hidden Life of Trees. I am glad that some responses have “quotes” around words like seeing, hearing, feeling and “consciousness.” We seem restricted to anthropomorphic words to explain what research is showing. If a plant can sense sound waves do they have “ears”? Do they “hear.” And so on for seeing, feeling, communicating and consciousness. What’s next? Plants “tasting” the feet of butterflies with their “mouths”? If plants are “conscious” and more, if they are “self-conscious” what in the world will we eat?

    • Well, chickens are conscious but we eat chickens. I do, anyway. There’s a book called “What a plant knows” that explores how a plant has senses that approximate the senses of animals (though hearing is one sense they completely lack). Emphasis is on “approximate” though, because lacking brains and central nervous systems, it does not appear that plants have the same kind of awareness as people and animals.

  7. Hello Jason, I wonder if natives plants get on better with each other than say a native and an exotic put together, or two exotics from completely different parts of the globe. Given the density of planting I have in the borders and the way the shrubs and plants are mingling with each other, I’d say they’re all getting on a little bit too well from how they’re growing well beyond the “ultimate” height and spread on the label.

  8. Peter Wohlleben’s book makes you stand back and take a new look at trees and at our view of living things. I was taken by his apparent love of nature and his sense of joy in living organisms. I have a short review on my blog Aergia’s Daughter.

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