Plants Are More Amazing Than You Ever Imagined

It’s easy to think of plants as just… well, plants. While we all know they are living organisms, we tend to think of them as fairly static, basic life forms that look nice when they are properly tended to. That’s about it.

The reality could not be more different. Plants are dynamic, vibrant and aggressive living organisms focused on survival and reproduction. As a farmer, I get to see what these amazing living creatures do every day; and there’s a lot more to them than you think. Incredibly, plants not only have the ability to recognize and respond to external threats, but they can also warn their neighbors about them. Yes – plants do actually have the ability to communicate. Not only will they look out for their neighbors, they will recognize and cooperate with their family. And, when threatened, plants will respond with full-blown chemical warfare.

Talking Soybeans?

As an example, think about a little soybean plant growing out in the field. Beside it, in the same row, you have a combination of unrelated neighbors and maybe, just maybe, a member of its kin. The soybean will grow more competitively with its unrelated neighbors than it will with its kin. Over eons of evolution, plants, just like animals, were more successful if they worked together.

Beside our little soybean plant, there is different competition. A weed. Based on the difference in light reflection between the bare ground and the weed, the soybean plant can sense that there is Nikon J1 234competition beside it. From the air, there may be other competition, such as a soybean aphid. Our soybean plant may release volatile organic compounds into the air to warn its neighbors, or it may instead secrete chemicals into the root zone (rhizosphere) for the same effect. Or, amazingly, it may instead use sounds to warn its neighbors, such as high-frequency clicking sounds (read more here).

What has been well-documented is that when threatened with competition from weeds, soybeans do not respond very well. As the soybeans send out and receive communication signals from other plants within the field, they “realize” they are competing with more aggressive plants. As a response, the soybean will try and grow as tall as possible, sacrificing root growth and it won’t grow the leaf mass it needs to produce high yields. With reduced root growth and smaller leaves, the soybean just won’t have the yield potential it would have had in the absence of competition. What our soybean is really trying to do is quite simple; its entire existence is predicated upon reproduction, and if it can keep itself from being shaded out, it can produce at least a few seeds to carry on its life cycle (source).

Wheat responds similarly to soybeans, trying to grow its leaves taller and longer to get ahead of its competition, sacrificing root growth and, therefore, yield as well. This is why weed control in our crops is so critical; if we allow weeds to compete, even if the crop outcompetes them, yields will be negatively affected.

It wasn’t very long ago that scientists were ridiculed for producing results like this. Plants can’t talk, right? Well, it seems that they can; and they may be capable of much more.

An Intelligent Shrub?

The European barberry is a species of shrub distributed throughout Europe. The tephritid fruit fly is a major pest for this plant, which punctures the berries produced by the shrub and lays its eggs inside, where the larvae will feed on the seeds. The barberry has the ability to abort its seeds if the fruit is infested with eggs, which would cause the death of any larvae. Interestingly, the seeds of the infested fruits are not always terminated; rather, it depends on the level of infestation. For example, if the infested fruit contains two seeds, it will almost always be aborted. However, if it only contains one seed, it is only rarely aborted. Giving up a fruit with only one seed causes the entire fruit to be lost, so the plant doesn’t want to do that unless it absolutely has to.

What is truly amazing about this whole process is that the fruit fly larvae are much more likely to die with only one seed to feed on, rather than two. So the barberry “speculates” that the larvae will die, holding onto that fruit for as long as it can. What does all this mean? The barberry is undergoing complex decision making, which has never before been imagined to be possible in plants. The barberry is anticipating future risks and weighing possible losses and gains (read more here).

Going to War

Evidence that trees talk to each other has grown in leaps and bounds over the past fifteen years. The question is why. In the case of the Sitka Willow, when under attack by Western Tent Caterpillars and Fall Webworms, the trees change the nutritional content of their leaves. Once the first tree’s leaves are chewed by these pests, it will release volatile organic compounds (VOCs) to warn its neighbors of the impending danger. The rest of the trees in the area will then change the nutritional content in their leaves to dissuade the insects from feeding, causing them to move on to other targets (source).

A more aggressive example of this signalling is in a more familiar plant – corn. When under attack, corn will release VOCs to attract parasitoids that attack the larvae feeding on the corn. Plant communication isn’t limited to plant-to-plant interactions; they talk to insects as well, when necessary. Some plants, after a warning from their neighbors, will even develop toxins in their leaves to ward off predators (read more here and here).

Applications for Agriculture

While I’m not going to go so far as to say plants are “intelligent” in any sense of the word, or, at least in our understanding of what intelligence is, I think the social community plants develop is Nikon J1 June 003absolutely fascinating. What’s more, it can be used for agriculture. Think about a whole field of wheat that “believes” it’s growing among its kin. Instead of competing against other wheat plants, they could actually work together as a whole to fight predators and weed competition. A signal plant could warn an entire field to produce defense mechanisms against a predator before it even enters the field. While all of this is a very long way away, improving our understanding of plant-to-plant interaction is critical to figure these things out.

Although a lot of this may sound very science-fiction, it has become quite accepted by the scientific community that despite a lack of eyes, ears or a nervous system, plants chatter with each other, with fungi, with insects, and countless microorganisms non-stop. Getting to experience this amazing community every day is something very special about being a farmer, and that’s why I had to share it with you. So next time you wander out in your yard, greenhouse or field, take a moment and think about what’s going on beneath your feet. There is far more going on that meets the eye.

The Farm Life is a Wonderful Life

If you have read my previous post (The Marathon Concludes… For Now), you know that seeding has been completed and we are well into in-crop spraying. This is a fascinating and exciting time of the year, in which we get to watch the crops we so carefully tried to plant come to life. Each field has its own personality; a visual depiction of the clay, sand and silt that is visible to the naked eye, and the incredible myriad of the microbiological ecosystems that thrive beyond our sight. Every crop, every field and every plant all provide clues with which to diagnose and analyze the sometimes confusing, but always interesting world of plant and microbiological life, and the relationships contained therein. The incredible diversity of the living things present in our soils becomes visible in every plant we grow.

Perhaps this all sounds a little over the top, maybe even a little on the nerdy side. But I have found in my life thus far that if you do not have something that you are so passionate about that you can go on about it the way that I have been, you are missing something vital to your happiness. It doesn’t have to be something as possibly obscure as plant life. Perhaps it is machinery, engines and things that move; perhaps it is books and stories of great and terrible deeds; maybe it is music and the creation of it; or maybe it is something much greater, like the love of another human being; a wife, a husband, a son, a daughter, a mother, or quite fittingly on this day, a father. Life is a wonderful thing, and if you are bored with it, you insult all that was given to you. Find your passion and let it consume you, whatever it may be. Just always remember that the first love must always be the things that truly matter. On that note, happy Father’s Day to my dad, the best man I have ever known, who taught me the difference between right and wrong, and that every action has a consequence that you must always be prepared for. I will never forget the life lessons he taught me.

Maybe this is all a little to deep for a post about a year in the life of a farmer, but if you believe that then maybe you don’t know farmers as well as you should. We get to walk out our front doors every morning and see the beauty of the world unfold in front of our eyes. We know what true silence sounds like, often on those nights so black you can’t see your hand in front of your face. Or sometimes when the sky is lit up like a brilliant mosaic of colours and light, with every star like a shot of brightness in the darkest night. Perhaps it may be on the night that the flickering arms of the Northern Lights reach across the sky, fingers outstretched as if reaching for something out there in the atmosphere that is just out of its reach, so close and yet so far from its brilliant green fingertips. Like I did the other night, when we were on our daunting and exhausting marathon. I had been up for 20 hours, running on only 3 hours of sleep and knowing that the following night would be just as short. I was loading the liquid fertilizer truck with nitrogen and sulfur in the pitch black of the night. When you load up with liquid fertilizer, it takes time as the pump has to deliver nearly 6,000 gallons of product up onto a trailer; it just is not that fast. As I waited for it to load, I saw the most brilliant Northern Lights show I had seen in years. When you have seen these things, and when you can just sit and watch them, sometimes you have a moment of clarity, a brief handful of seconds in which you see that we are indeed so very, very small.

As farmers, we get to experience incredible views like this frequently, and yet we still so often do not truly appreciate the majesty of what we are seeing. For instance, the sunrises and sunsets in Saskatchewan are truly a beautiful thing to watch, quite likely the most colorful in the world. And yet, most days I do not notice it. Sometimes you have to force yourself to just take a minute and watch; but in our busy lives, this can be difficult to do.

I hadn’t really intended to write about this subject today. In fact, I have a whole other subject to discuss. However, for today, maybe this will be enough. Funny how the mind goes off on a tangent. If you let it, you might be amazed where it will take you.

Going forward, I will continue to update you on our progress. We have had windy, wet weather for most days since my last post, so spraying has not advanced much. This will be a busy spraying week, in which we intend to spray the rest of our durum, our peas, and likely our soybeans again. We need to accomplish all of this before Farm Progress Show on Thursday (that is the day we are going to go). Hopefully the weather cooperates!

Furthermore, I hope that you will have interest in the posts that will come specifically about each crop. I am enjoying writing this blog, and maybe you will derive something of interest for you from it. Thank you for reading so far! One stage of the crop year is over, and another has begun.