An entertaining introduction to the wonderful world of plants, which “exhibit unmistakable attributes of intelligence.”
Although lacking a brain and immobile, plants are smart, flexible, durable, and innovative, writes Mancuso (Plant Neurobiology/Univ. of Florence; Measuring Roots: An Updated Approach, 2011, etc.) in this lively, enthusiastic, expert, and convincing overview. Animals move fast and possess highly efficient specialized organs—heart, lungs, brain—but, according to the author, these are overrated. “We have discovered that plants breathe with their whole body, feel with their whole body, and evaluate with their whole body. Spreading each function over the entire organism as much as possible is the only way to survive predation, and plants do it so well that they can even withstand removal of much of their body without losing functionality.” A sheep can survive the loss of its hair but not its heart or kidneys; losing its legs would likely be fatal, yet we mow our lawns and prune our trees without a thought. Sixty percent of the calories humans consume come from wheat, corn, and rice. We believe that we have domesticated plants, but Mancuso suggests that they have domesticated us. Even our concept of an “individual” makes little sense when applied to plants, whose reiterated architectural units resemble a colony. Splitting a plant often produces two plants, but no one would think of doing that to an animal. Mancuso has not written a popular textbook on botany but rather a series of unconnected portraits (both textual and visual) of often amazingly wacky plants and their behavior, accompanied by essays on the equally impressive ways in which they deal with their environment (some have eyes, and they display a “clear capacity of memory”), defend themselves, and flourish despite being stuck in one place. A pleasantly persuasive argument that plants are no less fascinating than animals.