Do Plants Have Feelings?

Updated on March 5, 2018
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Catherine is a California-certified nursery professional. Her interests are birds, insects, integrated pest management, & organic gardening.

Mimosa pudica, a sensitive plant.
Mimosa pudica, a sensitive plant. | Source

Plants behave in all sorts of ways and react to many different types of stimuli. Some people believe that plants grow better when spoken to or when music is played nearby. Anyone who has touched the sensitive plant and witnessed its instantaneous wilting has surely wondered if plants really do have feelings.

In 1970 Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird, authors of the best-selling book, The Secret Life of Plants, claimed that plants did indeed have emotions and intuitive capabilities. Although the book is a fascinating read, its unsubstantiated claims have had a negative impact on plant study credibility. It has taken years of serious study and experimentation for plant behavior hypotheses to hold water under scientific scrutiny.

The first step should be to define "intelligence." Plants don't have brains or central nervous systems like humans; therefore, they can't have emotions or reasoning capabilities . They are, however, sentient life forms and they do have "tropic" and "nastic" responses to stimuli. Plants can't vocalize or flee from danger, so they must rely on other ways to thrive and to protect themselves when threatened. They can choose which direction to grow, for example, and can defend themselves and aid pollination by moving their leaves, petals, and stamens. Plants also produce both attractive and defensive messenger chemicals called pheromones, much like humans, animals, and insects.

Responses are categorized as either tropic: a movement in response to a specific directional stimuli such as light and gravity, or nastic: a movement in response to non-directional or multiple stimuli such as touch or vibration. Nastic responses are usually temporary and do not alter growth.

From scientific study, we have learned that plants respond to light, gravity, and water. We call these reactions phototropic, geotropic, and hydrotropic, respectively. They are driven by the plant chemical auxin which is responsible for changing turgor, the water pressure within the cell walls. This explains why plants grow up toward the light and why roots grow into the earth toward water.

Tropic Response To Stimuli

The winding of tendrils around a pole is an example of a thigmotropic response.
The winding of tendrils around a pole is an example of a thigmotropic response.

The change of turgor within the stems of some plants when they come into contact with resistance are responsible for the twining of tendrils in climbing and vining plants. These tendencies are called thigmotropic responses because they are influenced by the tactile response to directional stimuli such as bean poles. posts, etc.

Most tropic responses are very slow such as the bending of a plant toward light and the opening of flowers. Nastic responses, however, are often faster and can readily be seen with the naked eye. Two great examples are the defensive response of the Sensitive Plant and the aggressive response of the Venus Fly Trap.

Nastic Response for Defense : Sensitive Plant

A plant's reaction to touch is referred to as thigmonasty, and it is just one of several natural defenses that botanical specimens use to insure reproduction and to survive in their threatening or competing environments. In Mimosa pudica,the sensitive plant, touch causes a reaction in the potassium ions within the plant's cells. This affects the water movement within the vascular structure, causing wilt and recovery. If the stimulus is slight as in the tickle of an insect , the reaction will be the closing of a leaf or its sections. With more overt stimulation, the whole plant will droop. These responses are intended to scare off leaf-eating insects or larger intruders to protect the plant from harm.

In some cases, thigmonasty is used for aggression rather than defense as a means of survival in areas where harsh elements make soil devoid of nutrients. This is the case for carnivorous plants like the Venus Fly Trap, Dionaea muscipula, which thrives in the peat bogs of both North and South Carolina. These insect eating specimens grow from a bulb structure and attract their prey through scent, nectar, and color. The lack of both nitrogen and phosphorus in their growing environments make them dependent upon the protein from insects. Although thought to subsist on flying insects, the mainstay of their nutrients comes from ants, spiders, beetles, and leaf hoppers. The true leaves of these plants are tipped with colorful convex lobes, each edged with hair-like cilia which interlock when triggered to imprison unsuspecting prey. An insect when making contact with two or more prominent hairs on the lobe's surface will trigger a 20 second timer. If it doesn't move on, it will find itself a victim of the quickly snapping trap. Clever in its design, this stimulus detection mechanism allows the plant to distinguish between water droplets and true prey so it doesn't expend unnecessary energy. Brilliant!

The Venus flytrap, Dionaea muscipula, with its predatory leaves.
The Venus flytrap, Dionaea muscipula, with its predatory leaves. | Source

Nastic Response for Aggression: Venus Fly Trap

In the botanical world, just as in our human one, living things are equipped to avoid danger and seek optimal conditions for survival. We rely on our basic instincts to sustain us, to reproduce, and to to protect ourselves from harm. Plants use "nastic" and "tropic" responses for these same purposes.

Do plants have feelings? No, not in the same sense that we do. They have stimuli-responses. Plants, like all other living things, share the trait of adaptation for survival. It is our common bond.

Questions & Answers

    © 2012 Catherine Tally

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      • cat on a soapbox profile image
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        Catherine Tally 13 months ago from Los Angeles

        Hello manatita. Good info on Dr.Bose. I will look into his research. Not quite a botanist here- more a curious plant-lover with a desire to keep learning. I do have many years of experience with gardening and nursery work which just feeds my passion.

        Glad you enjoyed this!

      • manatita44 profile image

        manatita44 13 months ago from london

        Interesting. You write not quite like Alicia C but with similar topics. Are you a botanist and she a biologist? I suppose you cross over, some.

        The great Indian scientist Dr Bose did a lot of work with plants using music and other things. He had interesting results. very nice and loving Hub.

      • cat on a soapbox profile image
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        Catherine Tally 3 years ago from Los Angeles

        Hello, Sanjay. Thank you for stopping by to read and comment:)

        Yes, recent scientific studies have shown that plants do respond to sound vibrations and can communicate with each other when under threat, perceived or real. It's a fascinating subject, and I plan to expound on it in a follow-up hub.

      • SANJAY LAKHANPAL profile image

        Sanjay Sharma 3 years ago from Mandi (HP) India

        The plants have feelings and the recent researches prove that they respond to music too.

      • cat on a soapbox profile image
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        Catherine Tally 4 years ago from Los Angeles

        Hi Dave,

        I always enjoy reading your fact-filled presentations about plants and their medicinal uses too. Let me know what you think of my hub on the Polynesian boxfruit tree and if you are familiar with it? Thank you for the nice comments.

        Cat :)

      • D.A.L. profile image

        Dave 4 years ago from Lancashire north west England

        The more I read about plants the more questions I find I need to find an answer too. As you know I love to write about plants especially the wild flora. This article is very well written very informative and a pleasure to share, enhanced by the videos. Thank you for sharing.

      • cat on a soapbox profile image
        Author

        Catherine Tally 4 years ago from Los Angeles

        Hi, Pop. Don't feel too bad! They probably would have preferred to be in the kitchen with you. Who wouldn't? Just don't let them drink too much!

        My best,

        Cat :)

        Hope to see you back at the Inn. I miss the daily treats and the Pip Pop Awards.

      • breakfastpop profile image

        breakfastpop 4 years ago

        Now I feel terrible. I can't tell you how many house plants have died under my care!

      • cat on a soapbox profile image
        Author

        Catherine Tally 4 years ago from Los Angeles

        Hello FlourishAnyway,

        Perhaps it IS something we've said-lol. I've had a few houseplants bite the dust. Maybe they don't like my taste in music either! Thanks for voting up and sharing too- I really appreciate the nice feedback. :)

      • FlourishAnyway profile image

        FlourishAnyway 4 years ago from USA

        This is so interesting to mull over, especially for those of us who don't always have the greenest of thumbs. Maybe it's something we said? Voted up and more and sharing because this is just way too fascinating.

      • cat on a soapbox profile image
        Author

        Catherine Tally 5 years ago from Los Angeles

        Thank you for expanding my knowledge of termite behavior in Australia! I had no idea termite populations in eucalyptus forests were such a huge problem. I am sharing a link:

        http://www.pbs.org/wnet/nature/kakadu/html/body_tr...

        I am glad that personal property was not damaged and no one was injured. :)

      • LongTimeMother profile image

        LongTimeMother 5 years ago from Australia

        Sadly the tree was still alive, Cat. Our local termites must be different to yours because our termites have no respect for how healthy a tree is when they decide to move in. I'll have to take some photos and post them. I was very lucky where it fell. Missed the car parked alongside the tree, missed the garden planted with gooseberries and red currants, and just touched another tree containing my daughter's prized tree house. I'm thinking I'd better take a closer look at the tree house tree before she climbs up there again. lol.

      • cat on a soapbox profile image
        Author

        Catherine Tally 5 years ago from Los Angeles

        Hi LongTimeMother. Wow! That tree must have made quite a crash and hopefully didn't damage any structures. I hear of this happening to fruit trees and others that get borers where the entire interior has been hollowed out. Live eucalyptus has aromatic oils that usually repel insects from chewing . Once the tree is dead however, it no longer has that capability - then termites move in to finish the job. If trees felt pain , that would have been one heck of an ordeal! Thank you for stopping by to read and comment!

        Cat:)

      • LongTimeMother profile image

        LongTimeMother 5 years ago from Australia

        A large eucalyptus tree nearby snapped in a strong wind a few days ago. Only a thin rim of bark had kept it upright. The interior of the trunk had been eaten by termites.

        Now that I've read your hub, I shudder at the thought of the stomach ache that poor eucalyptus tree must have had. :(

      • cat on a soapbox profile image
        Author

        Catherine Tally 5 years ago from Los Angeles

        Colin, that will be my pleasure. Take care and stay cozy. :)

      • epigramman profile image

        epigramman 5 years ago

        Hi Catherine - listening to Kraftwerk - remember them in the 70's with Autobahn - yes it's very ironic that sometimes music is like a cycle and things come back like today's youth with their interest in vinyl - my co-worker, Lorna, who is a little younger than me , I am 54, bought a turntable and vinyl albums for her teenage son who has a fascination with that whole era - well everything that goes round - comes round, they say - even 33 RPM , lol , I am glad you saw the Kennedy Centre Honors - I watch them every year and love them - still enjoying Led Zeppelin a lot as I can play it as loud as I want up here at the lake where I live - I guess my youth is still stunted - lol - always great to hook up with you and I will see you again ....

      • cat on a soapbox profile image
        Author

        Catherine Tally 5 years ago from Los Angeles

        Happy new year, Colin! Well, if there are any inanimate objects out there, we can remedy that by cranking up the volume- lol. Yes, I did see the Kennedy Center Honors and really enjoyed seeing them, esp. Jimmy Page, as they watched in appreciation as other bands played covers of their music. Did you get to see the concert for Hurricane Sandy that featured so many great bands? I still haven't seen it in its entirety, but the Stones made me think of your hilarious write awhile back about the "Geriatric Set." haha. My daughter and husband saw the Roger Waters "Wall" concert this past year which blew them away! She really loves vinyl LPS, so we got her a turntable for Christmas. She has picked over our collection, and I took her to Amoeba Records in Hollywood recently where we scoured the bins of vintage R&R. What fun! We LA wimps are dealing w/ the worst cold snap in years- just above freezing-lol. My sweet kitty has made a cozy nest in my polar fleece blanket where she spends her time napping. My thanks to you too for your friendship, wicked good humor, sensitivity and thoughtfulness, and the fun of sharing our mutual interest in good rock and roll and love of cats. My best to you always and much affection to Mr. Gabriel and Miss Tiffy,

        Cat :)

      • epigramman profile image

        epigramman 5 years ago

        I would like to think that 'everything' has feelings - even inanimate objects - lol - and certain plants respond to sun/light and water and location and temperature - and I always respond to your wonderful hubs and your friendship so here I sit and it's never too late to send you warm sincere wishes for your continued health, happiness and prosperity and more creativity and writing too from the three of us, Colin, Little Miss Tiffy and Mister Gabriel on a cold night at lake erie time ontario canada 9:39pm after a week of the January thaw we are getting the cold temperatures now - last week was mild and rain - now I think it's too cold to snow - lol -

        Have you heard any good music lately?

        The Kennedy Centre Honors on CBS (you can find it on You Tube) paid tribute to Led Zeppelin and last year it was The Who

      • cat on a soapbox profile image
        Author

        Catherine Tally 5 years ago from Los Angeles

        Hi there, b. Malin! I'm glad that you enjoyed this hub. I sometimes feel that plants do talk," uh oh, here she comes. . .better look lively or she may uproot you next week." Actually they DO communicate through chemicals which I will cover in an upcming hub- stay tuned. Thank you for stopping by to read and comment- I appreciate it. I'm also happy to see that you are following me. My best:)

      • b. Malin profile image

        b. Malin 5 years ago

        Hey Cat, Wonderful and Informative Hub. I've always felt that Plants DO have Feelings...I wrote a Hub about 2 Ferns that could Talk..."The Fern Sisters"! Kidding aside, I really Enjoyed the read.

        I now look forward to Following your Hubs.

      • cat on a soapbox profile image
        Author

        Catherine Tally 5 years ago from Los Angeles

        Thank you, Sueswan! I appreciate your thoughtful comments and positive response.

        Good to see you- take care:)

      • profile image

        Sueswan 5 years ago

        Hi cat on a soapbox

        I believe plants are sensitive and respond to sound and touch.

        Voted up and beautiful

        Have a good day. :)

      • cat on a soapbox profile image
        Author

        Catherine Tally 5 years ago from Los Angeles

        Nice to see you again, Genna! I have no doubt that plants respond to musical vibrations, and I also think it is wonderful that you treat your houseplants w/ such love and kindness:) I'm glad that you found this subject interesting. I will be doing a follow-up soon. Thank you for commenting! My best to you:)

      • Genna East profile image

        Genna East 5 years ago from Massachusetts, USA

        I have long felt that plants are sensitive. I always put my houseplants together, in groups, and play music. This may sound silly, but I actually think they truly thrive as a result.

        This is a fascinating hub! :-)

      • cat on a soapbox profile image
        Author

        Catherine Tally 5 years ago from Los Angeles

        Hello D.A.L. I'm so happy that you enjoyed this topic! I plan to do a follow up on the way plants use both photonastic and chemotropic responses to insure dominance and survival too. Thank you for stopping by to read and comment. I am delighted to see that you are a new follower- hope I can keep you interested:) My best to you!

      • D.A.L. profile image

        Dave 5 years ago from Lancashire north west England

        Brilliant and very informative. really enjoyed this hub. rated up

      • cat on a soapbox profile image
        Author

        Catherine Tally 5 years ago from Los Angeles

        Hi KixKat- Thank you for sending the info and video of jewelweed. I love the projectile seeds! I guess that's a pretty good way to make sure that the plant stays were it belongs. Seed pods picked up by birds and animals wouldn't get out of native habitat. I hope you write some cool hubs about your experiences exploring these places.:)

      • profile image

        KixKat 5 years ago

        It is one of the best parts of the week. :) I think my favorite lab though for this class is to visit the quaking bog close to campus.

        Here's a video of them exploding: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7tp08jHeatc .

      • breakfastpop profile image

        breakfastpop 5 years ago

        I look forward to seeing you at the breakfast table.

      • cat on a soapbox profile image
        Author

        Catherine Tally 5 years ago from Los Angeles

        Good morning, Pop:) I'm always happy to see you drop by . . . And here I thought I'd seen every episode after all those TZ marathons! I'll have to catch that one. Sometimes I get an awful sense that I can hear plants suffering from dehydration, and it nags at me. If I get up and look, I'm 98% right. Thanks for commenting. My best to you. I'll be by soon for another Bloody Mary w/ an extra hit of tabasco and a celery stick.

      • breakfastpop profile image

        breakfastpop 5 years ago

        I will never forget the Twilight Zone show that had the roses crying every time they were cut. Their plaintive cry sticks with me to this day.

      • cat on a soapbox profile image
        Author

        Catherine Tally 5 years ago from Los Angeles

        Hi KixKat:) What fun it must be to assist an group of beginning ecology students! Although I took an environmental science class in 1970, we didn't have the cool field trips.

        What are the types of plants w/ exploding seed pods that you mentioned. I am always a rapt pupil- lol.

      • cat on a soapbox profile image
        Author

        Catherine Tally 5 years ago from Los Angeles

        Hi Kashmir, Thank you for being such a loyal and supportive follower:) I'm glad that you learned some new things from my hub. It is always a pleasure to see you here and to read your comments. I always appreciate your kindness. All the best, Cat :)

      • cat on a soapbox profile image
        Author

        Catherine Tally 5 years ago from Los Angeles

        Hi marsei,

        I am so glad that you enjoyed this! I know what you mean about houseplants and those from outdoors. I feel a bond with mine also. Nature has always been a passion of mine, and the more I learn about it, the more I want to write about the awesome details with those who share an interest. Videos that show these incredible traits are far better than words! Thank you, Marsei for your interesting and kind comments. :)

      • cat on a soapbox profile image
        Author

        Catherine Tally 5 years ago from Los Angeles

        Thank you, Eiddwen! I appreciate the kind compliment and hope that you drop my often.

        My best to you :)

      • kashmir56 profile image

        Thomas Silvia 5 years ago from Massachusetts

        Hi Cat, great informative hub on plants and their feelings or stimuli-response . Thanks for help me know and learn more about plants !

        Vote up and more !!!

      • profile image

        KixKat 5 years ago

        They're native where I am in southern Wisconsin...I believe they're called jewelweed, with another variant called spotted jewelweed. They are so much fun.

        I actually am a lab assistant for a beginning ecology class on campus. This class is usually mostly freshman who are just starting out in their biology or environmental science majors, so when we find these plants out on our field trips, it's really difficult to get everyone back on task. :)

      • Marsei profile image

        Sue Pratt 5 years ago from New Orleans

        Cat, I enjoyed this so much. This is a case where I think the videos added tremendously to the whole hub. Sometimes they seem superfluous but not here. My den is filled with plants and I would be lonely without them.

        Thanks for a good read.

        marsei

      • Eiddwen profile image

        Eiddwen 5 years ago from Wales

        Such a wonderful hub and I now look forward to so many more.

        Eddy.

      • cat on a soapbox profile image
        Author

        Catherine Tally 5 years ago from Los Angeles

        Well Mhatter, let's just say our interests aren't always mainstream. I will still always be passionate about them. :) Thanks for the comment!

      • Mhatter99 profile image

        Martin Kloess 5 years ago from San Francisco

        I agree. Thank you. Now some people may say we are on a different planet. But, I don't care.

      • cat on a soapbox profile image
        Author

        Catherine Tally 5 years ago from Los Angeles

        Hi KixKat,

        I would love to see those, really! I take it that you are the ecology student :) Thank you for stopping by to read and comment.

      • profile image

        KixKat 5 years ago

        It's amazing how diverse the plant community really is, with all the adaptions that pop up. One of my favorite adaptations is that of certain plants whose seed pods 'explode' when they're brushed...or poked by an eager Ecology student. :)

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