Speaking a Different Language
By Bria Fleming
“Stand up straight—you’re missing all the good sunlight!”
“Here, try a little of my nitrogen—it’ll help you grow.”
“Hey, has anybody had any luck getting rid of these lady beetles?”
If plants could talk, they might be overheard making comments like that. But that’s silly—plants can’t talk. They just sit there, watching us…
Talking comes so naturally to us humans (some more than others). We learn a language early in life, enabling us to express our wishes, give advice, and ask for help.
But back to plants. They don’t have brains or mouths or eyes or ears – any of the “tools” that we humans use to communicate. So do they communicate? And how?
Imagine a tiny plant, awakening from its protective seed. Let’s say it’s one of Kankakee Sands’ popular wildflowers, a sand coreopsis. Sand coreopsis (we’ll call her Sandy) spreads her little roots down into the soil to find food and water, but that’s not all she finds. Imagine that her roots encounter the roots of another plant, which in turn is in contact with dozens or even hundreds of other plants and so on and so on until all the plants are connected. Like a baby human who cries when she needs food or comfort, even this smallest of new plants knows what it needs to grow.
Plants have two ways of getting what they need: they can create it themselves, or they can ask for it. Usually they use a combination of the two. Plants communicate through chemical compounds. Say baby Sandy needs something specific to make her grow a little taller and produce her first leaves. She takes what she can from the soil and the air, and she can send a chemical message through the network of roots in the soil. Like your neighbor knocking on your door to borrow some sugar, Sandy can ask cream wild indigo or even prairie willow for the specific compounds that she needs. A healthy underground network will have more than enough to spare.
Fast forward to Sandy’s adolescent phase. As is often the case with adolescents, something is bothering her. Maybe a beetle is nibbling on her leaves. Sandy has already tried secreting a chemical to deter this beetle from harassing her. It worked for other bugs, but not for this one. She tries another tactic and calls for help, secreting a new chemical that drifts away on the breeze. Before you know it, a wasp shows up. He got the message – there are tasty bugs here! Just like that—no more beetle.
Having survived adolescence, Sandy is all grown up and ready to make some baby plants. By secreting chemicals, she can call pollinators—such as bees and butterflies – to her. The chemicals tell the helpful bugs “Hey, I’m tasty” and tells the harmful bugs “Hey, I’m poisonous!” She can ask for extra energy from the other plants in her network, or even tell other plants of her species whether this place is a good place to make a home or not. Sandy nurtures her seeds, and sends them off into the world to become new plants in the network. Maybe she even has a little energy left to help out a friend.
It’s easy to think of communication in strictly human terms. We think of body language and verbal communication, and we associate words and titles with things we can see, hear, touch, smell, and taste. But communication happens between organisms all around us, all the time, for a vast range of purposes. The trees, flowers, mosses, grasses – all of these work cooperatively among themselves, communicating efficiently to ensure their continued survival. The next time you take a walk through the restored prairies and savannas at Kankakee Sands, remember to take a closer look at the plants, and imagine all the things they have to say.
Bria Fleming is the Restoration Operations Seed Assistant at Kankakee Sands who spends a good majority of her workday working with plants, seeds and marveling at the magic of plants.
The Nature Conservancy’s Kankakee Sands of Indiana and Illinois is 10,000 acres of prairie and savanna habitat in Northwest Indiana and Northeast Illinois, open every day of the year for public enjoyment. For more information, click here or call the office at 219-285-2184.