Plant communication - how plants communicate

Tomato Speak: How Your Tomato Plants Are Secretly Talking to Each Other

Do you speak Tomato? We explore the secret language of plants and how do plants communicate. How plant communication works and the role of mycorrhizal fungi.

I’m guessing you probably don’t speak Tomato, since we haven’t decoded their language. The Rosetta Stone for tomato and other plant communication hasn’t come out yet either.

Does the thought of how do plants communicate with each other surprise you?

Tomatoes & Other Plants as Dynamic, Living Organisms

Most of us view plants not as a dynamic living organism that thinks, feels and reacts, but more like an inanimate object such as a rock. So when we chop down that tree or prune that tomato plant we don’t think of hurting something, like we would hurt a puppy.

But science has found that plants are dynamic. They react to external and internal stressors and can be vary giving. And they communicate with each other.

Do Tomatoes Scream?

tomatoes emit a sound when injured. Plant Language.

Once tomato study conducted by a team of scientists at Tel Aviv University showed that when tomatoes are stressed by drought or physical damage they emit a high frequency distress sound…aka they scream.

They have different “voices” for the type of stresses too! Tomato plants that were drought-stressed emitted about 35 ultrasonic squeals per hour, while those that had their stems cut made about 25. The average number of sounds emitted by healthy plants was less than one per hour.

Why do they scream – is because they feel “hurt”?
Since we don’t speak Tomato, we can’t quite answer that question yet.

Can Plants Communicate with Each Other?

Plants communicate through mycorrhizal fungi

Until recently, because plants don’t have a voice box, the common belief was that plants do not have the ability to communicate. Science has revealed however, that that assumption is just not true. They communicate by other means – both through electrical signals, visual, and via chemical (scent) communications.

Electrical Signals as a Form of Communication Between Tomato Plants & Mycorrhizal Fungi

mycorrhizal fungi provide a network for plant communication

Electrical Signals

Scientists, in that same tomato study, have found that tomatoes transmit electrical signals between neighboring tomato plants.

Each plant generates electrical signals in their cells, and they communicate with each other by passing these electrical signals through the underground network of their hidden partner: mycorrhizal fungi.

Mycorrhizal Fungi Role

The network of mycorrhizal fungi act as circuitry to pass signals between plants. Fungal network is nervous and circulatory system of the world’s ecosystems, sharing both communications and food between plants, as well as providing other soil benefits such as aeriation and a way for bacteria movement.

Tomato plants form a symbiotic relationship with ectomycorrhizal fungi. The fungi receive carbohydrates from the plants and in turn, the fungi go out and form a network, extending their hyphae into the soil to break down (digest) nutrients and bring them back to the host plant. This mycelial web can extend between different plants too.

Check out this National Geographic Video on how do plants communicate.

Communicating and Sharing Between Species

In the late 1990s Dr Suzanne Simard of the University of British Columbia observed that when weeding paper birches from clear cut plantations occurred, it cause a decline in the planted Douglas fir trees. There was some unknown direct connection between the two tree types.

Mutual Dependence

Digging deeper she discovered that an extensive belowground fungal network connected trees. The trees, through mycorrhizal fungi’s network, allows the exchange of carbon and nutrients and links the roots of paper birches and Douglas in a cooperated Internet. Published in Nature Magazine.

Resource Sharing

During certain times of the year the Douglas fir would provide energy to the paper birches, and in other times of the year, this roll was reversed. The paper birch provided energy to the Douglas fir. Removing one species directly affected the health and survival of the other species. A connected community.

The two tree species depend on each other.

When soil disturbance, such as clearcutting a forest occurs, the fungal network is destroyed and communication and sharing becomes strained.

Communication Between Your Tomato Plants

Plant communications - tomatoes sharing information through the mycorrhizal network

So likewise, studies have shown the electrical networks within one tomato plant can communicate with electrical circuits in another tomato plant. This also occurs through the mycelia web as a result of the mycorrhizal fungi.

Plants generate electric signals that propagate through their parts. They can communicate by passing electrical signals to each other through the mycorrhizal network in the soil.

Why is this Important?

What we know so far, that it is important to have a working below ground fungal network to allow plants to share food and warn each other of “attacks” by fungi, beetles and herbivores.

There may be a lot more communication going on, but we haven’t deciphered their language yet.

Restoring Plant Communication in Your Garden

In your garden, due to soil disturbance as a result of tilling or other soil mixing, the mycelia network is mostly absent or generally impaired.

When establishing your yearly vegetable garden such as different tomato varieties, potatoes, or putting in roses, it’s important to introduce beneficial mycorrhizal fungi. In our article on mycorrhizal fungi we discuss the types of mycorrhizal fungi there are and how to re-introduce it.

How Else Do Plants Communicate?

Chemical Warfare & Plant Defense

Defending Themselves

Plants use chemical warfare on the defensive and offensive when attached. Emitting smelly chemicals, they transmit warning signals to other plants so the neighbors can go on the offense.

Giraffes & Acacia Trees

In Africa, the Acacia trees will do this when giraffes start nibbling. They not only bump up a terrible tasting substance in their own leaves so that it deters the giraffes, but also sends out the signals to nearby Acacias that they are under attack so they can do so in their own leaves.

Visual and Olfactory Signals

Attracting Others

Plants also communicate via visual and olfactory signals. This is mainly the exchange between different life forms. We all love walking through a rose garden, that perfume of roses, the brilliant colors. If you have ever walked through an orange grove in the spring, that sweet orange blossom scent is unforgettable.

Through Smell & Visual

Flower blossoms, and scents are used as means of communications to invite hummingbirds, bees and other insects to get a reward in exchange for the dusting they receive when they visit.

A New Perspective: Healthy Respect for Living Plants

When we understand that the trees, vegetables, and other plants around us are dynamic, they do make sound when hurt, talk to each other and help each other, it helps us gain a more mutual respect for how we interact with the environment.

Need firewood? We still will need to chop down that tree. Pruning your tomato variety? That’s ok. A better understanding doesn’t stop us from utilizing the natural resources we need to live, but maybe…just maybe, it we can approach our use of natural resources in a more respectful way.

Some day we might be able to speak Tomato, speak Douglas fir, speak the language of plants, but for now we can only hope to understand how they communicate and why.

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Plant communications - how do plants communicate and the role of mycorrhizal fungi in your garden

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