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Cabaret of Plants

March 21st, 2016


Richard Mabey has a new book out entitled Cabaret: Forty Thousand Years of Plant Life and the Human Imagination which examines the extraordinary qualities of plants. Here is an interview with Mabey by Simon Worrall from the National Geographic exploring the inspiration behind the book:

plant Caberet


When Paleolithic painters decorated the walls of the caves at Chauvet, in France, they chose stunning motifs of horses and other animals. For them, as for most of us, plants were just there in the background, vegetating away. Sure, a daisy can be cute, a redwood impressive. But compared to a cheetah or an elephant, most plants are, well, boring.

With his new book, Cabaret of Plants: Forty Thousand Years Of Plant Life and the Human Imagination, British author Richard Mabey pushes back against this prejudice to make us see that plants are as thrilling as animals and have been key to our relationship with the world.

Speaking from his home in Norfolk, England, he recalls growing up near Harry Potter’s Whomping Willow; why trees were so often the inspiration for myths and magic; and how a woman in Italy has demonstrated that some plants can remember—and learn from—their experiences.

Nature’s superstars are animals like chimps or cheetahs. You think plants are just as amazing. Convince us.

What can plants do that cheetahs can’t? They can regenerate when 90 percent of their bodies have been eaten away. They can have sex at long distances and communicate with approximately 20 more senses than an animal has. Those are very pragmatic arguments. But I think they’re valuable just because they’re there. We tend to judge plants not as autonomous organisms but in terms of what they can do for us. But they’re astonishing in their own right and deserve to be given the same ethical status as animals.

The seventies classic The Secret Lives of Plants claimed carrots screamed when picked. The “new botany” is making similar claims about plant intelligence. Are those claims just as whacky? 

No! [Laughs] I think that seventies generation believed plants were not only intelligent but conscious, which is a dramatically different thing. What the new botany is suggesting is that plants are sensitive and problem-solving but bypass the need for self-consciousness and brain activity that we assume is necessary for intelligence. People who think this are often accused of being anthropocentric, believing that plants are behaving like humans. The philosopher Daniel Dennett marvelously riposted that critics of this theory are “cerebrocentric,” believing intelligent behavior is not possible without the infinitely superior human brain. What the new work shows is that plants, by means we do not yet fully understand, are capable of behaving like intelligent beings. They are capable of storing—and learning from—memories of what happens to them.

Tell us about Monica Gagliano’s experiments with mimosa pudica, aka the “sensitive plant.” 

Monica Gagliano is a very gifted and off-the-wall plant physiologist, or “plant neurobiologist,” as she likes to call herself. She did this famous experiment where she potted up a number of mimosa plants, long known as the “sensitive plant.” As far back as the 18th century, it was known to react to any kind of touch or threat by curling up its leaves, in sequence, up the stems.

What Gagliano did was simulate the touch action by dropping these potted mimosas a fixed distance to the ground, so they received a mild physical shock. To start with, all of them closed their leaves in the proscribed fashion. On the second and third drop, rather less did. And by the end of a large number of drops, none of them were closing up.

Conventional botanists who saw the experiment said, “They’re just tired!” [Laughs] But she repeated the experiment with the same plants a week, and then a month, later. They all responded in the same way: They didn’t react to being dropped by folding up their leaves. But when they were simulated in the conventional way, like being grasped by a hand, they all immediately closed up.

By comparison, bees can only retain memories of places to find honey for three days. But the mimosa plants appeared to be able to “remember” the difference between an apparent and a real threat, and retained this discrimination in their memory…Read the whole article