Intelligence in Plants?

Let’s be clear: Without plants, we simply would not exist.

Plants convert the sun’s light into energy we used every day when we consume food. Even if you’re not a plant eater or vegetarian, the meat you are eating got its energy from somewhere, and that energy can be traced back to plants and ultimately the sun.

Apart from food, plants were also one of the first forms of life to colonize land long ago during the Paleozoic Era, a geological era that began roughly 542 million years ago and ended 251 million years ago.

Recent research into the animal and plant kingdoms has revealed a myriad of unexpected insights: bees that communicate through a “dancing language”; crows and ravens who are toolmakers; and plants that have memory. This research remains interesting because philosophers and scientists have been asking, “What makes us human?” since the time of the ancient Greeks, and the available evidence suggests that traits such as communication, memory, and sight, for instance, may not be sole human traits after all.

Plants may possess those three traits and more . . . .

Plants with Vision

Daniel Chamovitz, author of “What a Plant Knows” (2012), takes readers on a tour of the various traits that plants may possess, such as “What a plant feels,” “What a plant smells,” and “What a plant hears.”

And his writings are fascinating.

Two or so decades ago, if one were to suggest that can have a memory, for example, he or she would be labeled a crackpot. Yet, Chamovitz and other writers have begun to popularize this idea (and others), which is based on sound science. To begin, animals have to advantage of movement, while plants don’t. Because of this, “. . . plants have evolved complex sensory and regulatory systems that allow them to modulate their growth in response to ever-changing conditions,” writers Chamovitz. As noted, some of these “complex sensory and regularity systems” include a Douglas fir tree that “has to know if whipping winds are shaking its branches so that it can grow a stronger trunk,” or “[a] head of lettuce [that] has to know if there are ravenous aphids about to eat it up so that it can make poisonous chemicals to kill the pests.”

One of the first people to make significant finds in plant research was the father of evolution, Charles Darwin. Darwin, who is best known for his work on natural selection and evolutionary theory, did a lot of work on plants. He discovered a process called “phototropism”—a phenomenon where plants bend toward their light source, and Darwin wrote about it in his book, “The Power of Movement in Plants.” Even more interestingly, plants engage in another process called “photoperiodism.” This remains a process by which plants regulate and measure “how much light they take in.”

“Ecologically, this makes a lot of sense,” Chamovitz explains. “In nature, the last light any plant sees at the end of the day is far-red, and this signifies to the plant that it should ‘turn off’. In the morning, it sees red light and wakes up. In this way, the plant measures how long ago it last saw red light and adjusts its growth accordingly.”

By measuring the color of light, a plant can “see” in this way.

A Promising Future

Nature is full of surprises, so it may not seem that crazy to think that plants may have several highly evolved traits such as sight. After all, long before humans developed bipedalism (walking upright on two legs, a rather rare development in animals), language, and culture (or existed in any recognizable form for that matter), plants had been evolving and learning to convert the sun’s energy into food for millions of years. Ultimately, it may depend upon how these traits are defined before we can say for sure that plants or other animals possess them, but the available evidence so far remains promising.

It appears that plants have a promising future in science and in intelligence research.


Chamovitz, D. (2012). What a plant knows: A field guide to the senses. New York: Scientific American/Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Brooke Lamberti

Brooke Lamberti is a content writer based out of Scranton, Pennsylvania. She received a Bachelor of Science in Psychology from Marywood University, and has prior career experience working in social work and domestic violence advocacy. She has a passion for writing and helping others.

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