The science of vegetal noticing

Ever-increasing ecological challenges implore us to re-think our relationship with the environment. But where to we start in a world of overwhelming environmental challenges? Perhaps the humble houseplant can help us on the road to relational reparations.

Houseplants mingling. Photo author’s own.

In the last few years, there has been a huge spike in the popularity of horticulture amongst young people — and in prize-winning position is the ever-so-stylish houseplant.

For some, the houseplant’s received admiration can be explained by debt-buried and time-poor millennials’ desire to feel as though they’re at least caring for something. But perhaps these relationships are more than just self-indulgent pseudo-parenting. Perhaps they are a chance for our historically self-centred bunch to appreciate the needs and complexities of beings beyond ourselves.

Scientific noticings

Everyday engagement with our lush leafy friends can help us to know them both scientifically, and as beings who have needs, just as we do. You don’t need a university, high school, or even primary school education to observe the fascinating science of plants. In fact, all you need is a sense of sight or touch to recognise captivating phenomena such as tropisms.

A tropism is growth in response to a stimulus, such as light, water, or gravity. It’s likely that those who have ever sat a plant cutting in a vessel of shallow water would have noticed newly-formed roots reaching for a hydrating drink of water with all their tiny might. This is hydrotropism in action. Likewise, if you have ever seen a vine twining around an object for support, you’ve witnessed thigmotropism. Is one of your sun-starved houseplants desperately rotating it’s leaves toward that minuscule bathroom window? That’s phototropism.

Thigmotropism in the tendril of a Garden Pea. Photo author’s own.

Science and relationship

Seeing the reactive growth of the plants we live with allows us not only insight into the fascinating physiology of plants, but an opportunity for an attention to detail which may alter our very understanding of more-than-human beings. In noticing the subtle complexities of these beings, we are compelled to reconsider our superior position in a life-form hierarchy that has dominated Western thought for centuries.

You may be thinking that this all seems very unscientific. You may think that science reveals to us the truth about where we stand in relation to plants — more advanced biologically, physiologically, and in any other way imaginable. But by knowing the plant only in comparison to the animal, all we allow ourselves to see are its shortcomings. We compartmentalise how it works from what it can teach us — a perspective, states botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer, that erases the threads that connect the world.

Noticing the threads that connect the world. Photo author’s own.

Re-thinking plants; re-thinking ourselves

Knowing the science of plants through a lived relationship can help us to understand not only how they are like us, but how they can help us to know our very selves. Indeed, philosopher Michael Marder believes that plants can help us to respect a part of ourselves which has historically been denigrated and disavowed.

Thus, we are urged to rethink the ways in which we value and care for these myriad dimensions of ourselves and our fellow beings. In the words of physicist and feminist theorist Karen Barad: “We need to meet the universe halfway, to take responsibility for the role that we play in the world’s differential becoming.”

So, when next tending to your beloved vegetal children, take a moment to think: in an era of hastening human-induced ecological change, can an understanding of those with whom we inhabit the earth help us to reshape our place within it?