The neurobiologist Stefano Mancuso, Professor at the University of Florence and head of the International Laboratory of Plant Neurobiology, has been working for years to change our vision of plants, dispelling ingrained clichés that have been handed down for millennia – such as, for instance, the idea that plants don’t move.
In a recent interview in the Corriere della Sera the scientist explains: “Of course, if we look at the lives of individual plants, well single plants are fixed, rooted and don’t move. But they do travel, even if they don’t move. Plants travel through seeds. They always use carriers. They take advantage of the things that are able to move: water, air, animals, humans. They move for kilometres and for years, reach distant continents and there they adapt to life. Their ‘intelligence’ has invented thousands of ways of spreading life”.
If we think about it, several of the movements of plants are well-known, such as, for example, the blossoming of flowers. But, maybe, the biggest prejudice to overcome concerns the belief of the lack of perceptive ability and intelligence of plants, which are considered as almost inert organisms that are only programmed to survive. The reality, Mancuso tells us, is very different.
The idea that plants are low-level organisms dates back to Aristotle: the great philosopher believed that plants only possess a “vegetative” soul, as they lack movement and therefore do not need to sense. That they are “on the edge between living and not living”. Today we know that plants do not simply survive, but are highly complex living organisms with an ability to sense. In fact, they are much more sophisticated in sensing than animals. And they are even able to communicate.
“Plants are extraordinary communicators. They communicate with other plants. They are able to distinguish kin and non-kin. They communicate with plants of other species and they communicate with animals by producing chemical volatiles, for example, during pollination”.
The fact is that if we really want to understand the fascinating world of plants, we have to abandon our anthropocentric point of view and open our minds.
Plants are not individuals, but a network. And a forest is like a single organism: it is not made up of a large number of individuals, but rather a network of plants that are connected to one another through their roots. And it is through their roots that plants exchange information on the state of the environment and many nutrients, in a true and proper “network of mutual support” that is needed to ward off predators, a network that is based on reciprocal help and symbiosis and not on competition or on predation, as is the case in the animal world.
In particular, plants are highly sensitive to their surrounding environment: when they realize that something is changing, they take immediate action to ensure that the situation improves. This attitude towards life has enabled them to survive for hundreds of millions of years.
Plants currently make up 85% of life on Earth, compared to only 0.3% of animals. This ought to give us the impetus us to find out much more about them and make them become a true source of inspiration.