Our Intelligent Companions, the Plants

By John Van Mater, Jr.

We take it for granted that plants are essential for maintaining our ecosystem, for producing oxygen, and providing the primary food source in a vast chain to which man belongs. But plant intelligence also reflects a soul-life and consciousness, which is an overall unifying factor.

How the vegetable kingdom first emerged and became established is mysterious. Plants have been evolving for many hundreds of millions of years as have minerals, viruses, and bacteria. One of the oldest fossils of any living form appears to be a microscopic plant, a bacterium, trapped in a type of black chert rock in Swaziland, Africa, and reckoned to date back over three billion years. A simpler colonial relative of blue-green algae is dated at 2.8 billion years. Flowering plants suddenly appeared approximately one hundred million years ago towards the latter half of the Cretaceous Age.

In each era the right plants occupied the proper places and adjusted to prevailing conditions along with the animals that went with them. As the ages followed one another, the plants proliferated and helped to set the stage. A vital exchange among the kingdoms -- mineral, plant, and animal -- serves to produce climates and conditions appropriate to the time.

Possibly the first single-celled plants or algae started the sophisticated process called photosynthesis; this involves the transfer of light energy into chemical energy via chlorophyll. When algae suddenly arrive on the scene in the fossil records, their genetic material along with photosynthesis is already evolved and in place. How could this be unless intelligence -- indeed intelligences -- were operating behind the scenes?

The further back to origins we look, the closer the kingdoms resemble one another, and on the single-cell level the distinction between plants and animals seems to disappear. We find that the zooplankton has beautiful forms and geometry similar to diatoms or plant plankton which make zoospores. Most single-celled zoospores have hairlike flagella, and some occurring in algae even possess a light-sensitive eye-spot. The zoospores function like the spermatozoids produced by ferns, mosses, and liverworts, considered among the most primitive multicellular plants. The male sex cells (spermatozoids) of such plants are quite similar in function and appearance to animal sperm cells. This, as well as genetic similarities, points to one ancestry, one source, a primeval protoplasm. Many questions are left unanswered as to their origin.

Undoubtedly intelligent designers produced the original prototypes for the marvelous forms in the plant and other kingdoms. Desire and will are inherent in plants as part of the primal intelligence that has been guiding their evolution, changing and refining their shapes and patterns in response to needs. These marvels of function and design are not limited by size and are everywhere present, from the tiniest spores, pollen grains, or viruses, that require an electron microscope to be seen, to the largest living organism, the giant sequoia, which starts from a seed about an eighth of an inch in size.

Each phylum and family has its own qualities, from roses to redwoods, just as every species has its unique characteristics, both physical and behavioral. The plant's structure shows an elegant geometry indicative of mind and ingenuity. The spiral form that occurs everywhere, represents evolutionary progression. DNA in plants, as in animals and humans, consists of double helices. We also find this helix pattern in the placement of leaves on stems, in the spiral center of a sunflower, a ram's horns, shells -- even in spiral galaxies.

We can learn from the ingenious function and design of seeds and pods. Fruits and seeds are made appealing to eat so birds and animals can disperse them. Thistles and dandelions make parachutes that can fly in the air; the maple seed twirls like a helicopter; others are made to float, like the coconut, and still others, like wisteria, snap their seeds out with alarming force. The leaf, a fundamental organ of the plant, has numerous forms: succulents have water-storage leaves; the mimosa has tiny, compound leaflets that open and close in seconds -- this is one of the few plants that react this way, being very sensitive to light, heat, and touch; cacti of the Americas evolved their leaves into spines, and the stems store water yet act like leaves in carrying on photosynthesis.

The vegetable kingdom has some unusual adaptations and certain animal characteristics. Fungi are related to plants and are classified close to them, but do not have the chlorophyll to make food. Slime molds, a type of fungus, have an amoeba-like form which crawls around on its own, devouring organic matter. Then they come together in one big reproductive parade culminating in an organism that produces a fruiting body containing spores that disperse the fungus. Each of these little amoeba cells has to specialize in forming this structure and it is still not known how they learn the roles they must play. Besides the carnivorous plants, there is also an aquatic single-celled group, the dinoflagellates, which have both plant and animal characteristics. They contain chlorophyll for the manufacture of food, yet may also catch and eat tiny animals. These relationships are complex and not entirely understood, except that they work well now, and appear to have always done so.

All of nature is built on symbiotic or cooperative relationships. Lichens are fungi that work with algae. They surround and protect the algae, giving them nutrients dissolved from the rocks, and in return the algae produce food for them. Both are able to survive in harsh conditions.

Fungi, like all microbes and bacteria, are involved in the breaking-down process or decomposition of things into their original elements. Many are allies of the plants, because they are part of the vast process necessary to recycle vital materials for the plant and other kingdoms. They are indispensable, restoring carbon dioxide to the air and nutrients to the soil. One type of fungus lives in the soil and makes a partnership with the plant's roots, exchanging raw nutrients for food. There are also nitrogen-fixing bacteria living in the roots of legumes.

The behavior of plants and the ways they interact reveal awareness. For instance, there is a warning system among pine trees in a forest and interaction between individuals of a species. There are also responses between kingdoms. Some of the finest examples of interspecies communication are to be found where insects, such as bees, form a symbiosis with flowering plants, serving as pollinators in return for nectar and pollen. Interaction reaches a peak in the orchid family which displays some amazing forms of flowers as well as highly ingenious methods of pollination. The lady's slipper traps a bee in a chamber and frees it by a special exit only after pollination. One group of the genus Ophrys mimics wasps and certain species of flies in a harmless deception. It produces a likeness to the female insect along with an irresistible scent, which attracts the male to try to mate with the flower, thus pollinating it. The timing is synchronized so that the flowers bloom just when the male insects hatch out. Insects and plants have perfected, by mutual awareness, a relationship lasting millions of years.

The forms of plants have been refined through vast epochs of time, and their design reveals a transcendent intelligence. Really to know a plant one would have to look into its soul-life, because there are deep mysteries underlying the most ordinary activities. The germination of a seed is a marvel, for it knows how to send its roots down into the earth and its shoots up toward the light. Behind this action is the great breath of life. "In the plant it is that vital and intelligent Force which informs the seed and develops it into the blade of grass, or the root and sapling" (H. P. Blavatsky, The Secret Doctrine, Private Commentary, 1:291)

Darwin even considered the threadlike roots a kind of brain that searches and burrows downward into the soil. There is the suggestion here of a consciousness diffused throughout the whole plant, focused in its most vital parts such as the shoots or root tips, leaves, and especially the flowers.

The great Bengali scientist, Sir Jagadis Chundra Bose, conducted fascinating experiments with plants nearly a hundred years ago. Dr. Bose combined physiology, physics, and biology in his research and discovered universal relationships. He devised a way for a plant, by reacting to electrical and other stimuli, to "write" its signature on a piece of smoked glass. He observed that the sensitive mimosa has a reflex arc like an animal, and a type of nervous system of its own corresponding to certain cells. He also found that in the cortex tissue of the growing layer plants have pulsing heart cells that help pump the sap up through the stem. Among his many experiments he noted that the carrot was the most excitable of vegetables, and celery one of the least. Bose quotes the following from Henri Bergson:

. . . it by no means follows that a brain is indispensable to consciousness. . . . If then, at the top of the scale of living beings, consciousness is attached to very complicated nervous centres, must we not suppose that it accompanies the nervous system down its whole descent, and that when at last the nerve stuff is merged in the yet undifferentiated living matter, consciousness is still there, diffused, confused, but not reduced to nothing? Theoretically, then, everything living might be conscious. In principle, consciousness is co-extensive with life. -- Mind-Energy, Lectures and Essays, pp. 7-8; quoted in Plant Autographs and Their Relationships, "Response of Inorganic Matter," ch. viii.

Bose went even further in his experiments showing us new interrelationships between the "living" and "non-living" that are not yet fully recognized, and that consciousness is in all matter. His experiments primarily reveal a plant awareness very sensitive to other types of electromagnetic frequencies or waves besides those of visible light.

In the early 1950s Dr. T. C. Singh, head botanist of the Annamalai University, India, discovered that the hydrilla, a water plant, reacted to Indian ragas played on violin, flute, and vina. Further experiments with various pitches of sound caused certain plants greatly to increase their yields. Around the world this research continued in the '60s and ' 70s with mixed results. Plants responded to most kinds of music or sound, to magnetic and electric fields or current, all of which favored growth under certain conditions. It was discovered that jazz and classical music in general gave better results than hard rock, which produced an adverse effect.

Cleve Backster used a polygraph (lie-detector) to test plants, attaching electrodes to the leaves. By recording electrical impulses he found the plants to be extremely sensitive to his thoughts, particularly thoughts that threatened their well-being. Backster also observed a reaction in a plant when even the smallest cells were killed near it. He noted that they have a kind of memory, reacting to someone who earlier had done harm to another plant nearby: in a line-up of anonymous people the plant could pick out the one who had performed the act.

Marcel Vogel, a contemporary, performed most of Backster's experiments successfully. He came to an interesting conclusion: that there is a life force, a cosmic energy surrounding living things, shared by all kingdoms including the human. He said:

this oneness is what makes possible a mutual sensitivity allowing plant and man not only to intercommunicate, but to record these communications via the plant on a recording chart. -- The Secret Life of Plants, p. 24

Nature is a great brotherhood of beings, a symbiosis on many levels, most of it beyond our detection and ordinary understanding. The vegetable kingdom is an essential layer of the living planet's vitality or prana, helping to provide in its metabolism a breathing, intelligent organ that produces and regulates the atmosphere as well as transfers energy into the biosphere. Plants are also a link in the chain of beings, in which each kingdom or level needs the others in order to function and evolve.

Plants, then, have an inner consciousness, a driving force causing them to create the marvelous forms we see around us. There is will and a cosmic urge in them, and a "mind" or instinct which is seen in their activities. Chundra Bose, Backster, and others, demonstrated that consciousness is diffused throughout matter, and need not necessarily have a brain. Goethe, the great German philosopher and poet, conceived of an archetypal plant (Ur-pflanze), an ideal prototype which is the source of all the variations in the plant kingdom, both past and future. He was aware that outer forms are transitory and unstable, and that the universe is constantly changing its appearances due to the operation of transcendental spiritual energies. Goethe recognized this universal process as metamorphosis: this involves a whole being in rhythmic growth, a pulsing consciousness creating and destroying by transformations, much as the caterpillar turns into the butterfly; or as the flower expands from a bud, contracts in the ovary, expands once more into fruit, and contracts into seed. This is fundamental, and can be seen everywhere in the cosmos, with stars exploding into supernovae and imploding into black holes. It is suggestive of the breathing in and out of universes.

What is the ultimate core of intelligent life? Space? Infinity? There are indestructible cosmic seeds or germs -- monads -- behind the soul's growth in the plant kingdom and in all things, each learning by experience through successive forms on the ladder of evolution. As human beings with the same cosmic potential, we can harmonize our souls with nature's essence, and come to know the secret life of all beings, including our brothers, the plants.

(Reprinted from Sunrise magazine, April/May 1987. Copyright © 1987 by Theosophical University Press)

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