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6 plant questions you didn't know you needed answered

Can plants communicate with each other?

Yes, they can!

Plants have a variety of methods they can use to send messages to each other, warn of potential dangers and even send nutrients to their kin.

One such method is through underground fungal networks where plants can communicate by sending electrical pulses through their roots. This can be useful for plants to alert neighbours of hungry bugs looking to make a meal out of their foliage.

Once notified of danger, plants can manufacture a variety of chemical defences ranging from compounds that make their leaves less palatable to those that harm insects by disrupting their digestion.

As it turns out, these airborne concoctions are a form of communication in themselves. By emitting these compounds, not only are they alerting other nearby plants to do the same, but they’re also summoning a predatory ally to come to their defence…

This chemical messaging allows plants to send a distress signal to organisms that want to kill and feed on the herbivores. For example, certain types of plants attacked by armyworms have been known to emit a cloud of chemicals attracting wasps that come and lay eggs inside the worm’s bodies. How terrifying…

Plant communication is a relatively young field of study with many unknowns. What we do know, however, is that these organisms live in a complex, information-rich world that we can barely imagine.

Underground fungal network

Are plants conscious?

In short, we’re not sure yet. We do know that plants are capable of communicating with each other in a variety of ways, recognise their kin and adapt their behaviour and decision-making in anticipation of future events. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re aware.

A growing database of empirical evidence suggests that plants can do a lot more than just respond to external stimuli. Previously thought to be purely reactive and mechanical, the new view is that plants are highly sensitive and dynamic organisms that are capable of learning and remembering. Experiments are proving that their ability to process information and adapt their behaviour is far more complex than we originally thought possible.

Although interesting to think about, this isn’t sufficient proof to conclude that your monstera is a self-aware being capable of angrily reflecting on that one time you forgot to water it…

Many critics argue that the behaviours of plants are genetically encoded and have been fine-tuned over millions of years to give the illusion of intention.

Whatever the case may be, more research is needed to determine whether you lazy plant parents should be feeling guilty for not giving your poor plant the attention it deserves.

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Can plants get cancer?

Surprisingly yes, they can. Cancer is caused when cells clump together and multiply uncontrollably, which can certainly happen in plants.

But since plant cells don’t circulate around as ours do, the cancerous cells can't spread. This is usually the cause of death in humans and animals.

Plants also lack organs that are essential for life. That’s why if a plant develops a tumour, the worst that could happen is it may lose a branch. Not that bad since they can just grow another one…

Plant tumour

(Photo by Science Focus).

Can plants feel pain?

Since plants lack both a nervous system and brain, they don’t experience pain in the same sense that we do. They can, however, feel sensations and respond accordingly. 

Take a venus fly trap for example. Through sensory receptors, it’s able to feel when unsuspecting prey land in its trap and close within fractions of a second.

Although plants don’t have a nervous system, they do have an interesting way of responding to any damage being caused by invaders. Electrical signals in the plant’s tissue surge outward, resulting in the other leaves emitting a defence pheromone.

Interestingly, a study conducted by zoologist David Rhoades found evidence that these electrical signals may even prompt the plant to alter the nutritional quality of its leaves in response to an attack.

Despite these responses, there’s no evidence to suggest plants can feel pain in a similar sense that way do. It also begs the question of why a plant would need to evolve the ability to feel pain in the first place.

As humans, when we feel pain it evokes a ‘fight or flight’ response, causing us to take action. Since a plant can hardly move (at least not in a hurry), the ability to feel pain would seem like a cruel trick played on an organism incapable of escaping. 

Can plants get Covid?

No. Plants have a tougher cell wall compared to that of humans and animals. This means that plants are immune to most viruses that can infect us.

Can plants live forever?

Unfortunately, no. Plants undergo cellular aging just like all other organisms on earth. The rate at which this happens largely depends on the type of plant and external factors such as sunlight, water, nutrients and the environment it’s in.

But given the ideal conditions, some species of plants can thrive for centuries. Take this Eastern Cap Giant Cycad for example. It is the oldest known pot plant, is over 240 years old and is located in Key Gardens. As you would expect… it’s very big!

 Oldest known pot plant

(Photo by Kew Gardens).

How long you can expect your plant to be around for all depends on the type of plant you have and the care you give it. If you’re skilled and dedicated enough, some of your houseplants may even outlive you!