Such a sensitive flower: do plants really have personalities?


Name: Plant personalities.

Age: Possibly millions of years old.

Appearance: Tall, thin, green.

They’re sometimes a bit drab, too. Oh my God, don’t let the plants hear you say that. You’ll hurt their feelings.

But they’re plants? Yes, and they have rich, wide inner lives. They certainly don’t need to be badmouthed by a human like you.

Yes, but they are plants. Plants are not just plants. Botanists have discovered that they can produce, detect and respond to complex chemical signals that help them communicate with the world around them. For example, if a caterpillar starts eating a wild tobacco plant, the plant can emit a chemical that will summon a caterpillar-eating predator.

What the hell? Yes, but we already knew this. The latest development in botanical research is the field of plant personalities.

I’m sorry, what? It’s very simple. Some plants are big brave soldiers, others are total scaredy-cats.

Nonsense! It’s true. Rick Karban, a professor of entomology at the University of California, who is at the forefront of the research, uses pandemic hygiene as an example. “If you have variation in how anal people are about washing their hands,” he told Bloomberg, “you might have some individuals who are hyper hygienic, and under certain conditions they might have an advantage over individuals who are really cavalier.”

Plants can’t wash their hands. But our reactions to the hand-washing command might be analogous to how plants give distress signals. Plant equivalents of “hyper hygienic” people will emit distress signals at the slightest provocation, and this could help to protect them.

Those plants sound jumpy and annoying. Exactly! Neighbouring plants will learn not to take them seriously because they thrive on needless drama. But if a more cavalier plant sends a distress signal, the surrounding plants will know that something serious has gone down and react accordingly.

Is this real? Possibly. Karban hasn’t published any papers about his theory of plant personalities, but plans to do so. And if there is anything to it, it might alter the way we see plants.

But I just stopped eating animals because I didn’t want to hurt them. Tough break, I guess. We might be just a few years away from realising that plants have feelings, too. And then who knows what we’ll eat. Polystyrene?

Or we could harness this new information to boost crop yields. Or get it wrong, wipe out loads of species and start a global famine. Stupid, clever plants.

Do say: “Plants might have their own personalities.”

Don’t say: “At least, that’s what a tulip told me, but everyone knows they’re massive drama queens.”


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