Most of us don't think of our plants as having a social life. But some new research shows that, while your beans and begonias may not updating their Facebook pages, some plants are aware of who's hanging out in their neighborhood. Scientists are just beginning to understand how the plants can tell who's nearby.
As reported in the November, 2010 issue of Discover Magazine, biologists at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute found that certain tropical tree species grow best in soil collected near mature trees of a different species rather than their own. Interestingly, the tree seedlings did not seem to be responding negatively to chemicals released by their own species but instead to the particular soil micro-organisms that flourished near the roots of the mature trees. The researchers hypothesized that this process evolved as a way to keep seedlings from sprouting too close to the parent tree and suffering from its competition.
Sagebrush, on the other hand, enjoys the company of its own kind. Scientists at the University of California at Davis found that these plants sent out airborne chemicals that helped to protect them from insect attacks. But the researchers also noted that, like siblings watching out for each other, when two genetically-identical sagebrush plants grew side by side, they fended off pests more effectively than if grown next to an unrelated plant. They speculate that the ability of sagebrush to respond to defense signals from other members of their species encourages the plants to grow near to each other to enhance their survival.
Ultimately, this kind of research may lead to better ways to grow plants and keep them safe from pests. But it's also a fascinating peek into the intricacy and complexity of natural world.