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This is a brief but burgeoning book, covering a lot of science and a lot of scientific history. Plants stay in one place and don’t seem to suffer pain or discomfort, so they’re good experimental subjects, particularly for introverts. That’s why Charles Darwin devoted even more time to plants than he did to worms and barnacles. Chamovitz describes Darwin’s ingenious experiments and the even more ingenious experiments of the researchers that followed him. Over millions of years the world has set problems of survival for plants; in solving these problems, plants have set puzzles for scientists. How do plants know when to flower and prepare for winter? How do they resist attacks by insects? Or prey on insects? Or invite visits from pollinators? And how do they communicate with each other? The answers aren’t just chemical: they’re electrical too, as research on the world’s most famous carnivorous plant has proved:
Alexander Volkov and his colleagues at Oakwood University in Alabama first demonstrated that it is indeed electricity that causes the Venus flytrap to close. To test the model, they rigged up very fine electrodes and applied an electrical current to the open lobes of the trap. This made the trap close without any direct touch to its trigger hairs … (ch. 6, “What A Plant Remembers”, pp. 147-8)
Acoustics is also at work in the plant kingdom:
In a process known as buzz pollination, bumblebees stimulate a flower to release its pollen by rapidly vibrating their wing muscles without actually flapping their wings, leading to a high-frequency vibration. … In a similar vein, Roman Zweifel and Fabienne Zeugin from the University of Bern in Switzerland have reported ultrasonic vibrations emanating from pine and oak trees during a drought. These vibrations result from changes in the water content of the water-transporting xylem vessels. While these sounds are passive results of physical forces (in the same way that a rock crashing off a cliff makes a noise), perhaps these ultrasonic vibrations are used as a signal by other trees to prepare for dry conditions. (ch. 4, “What A Plant Hears”, pg. 107-8)
All of this is mathematical: a plant is a mechanism that processes not just sun, water and carbon-dioxide, but information from its environment too. But then sun, water and CO2 are all part of that information: sunlight signals plants as well as sustaining them. Its strength and duration are cues for the seasons and time of the day. So is its colour:
By the time John F. Kennedy was elected president, Warren L. Butler and his colleagues had demonstrated that a single photoreceptor in plants was responsible for both the red and far-red effects. They called this receptor “phytochrome”, meaning “plant colour”. In its simplest model, phytochrome is a light-activated switch. Red light activates phytochrome, turning it into a form primed to receive far-red light. Far-red light inactivates phytochrome, turning it into a form primed to receive red light. Ecologically, this makes a lot of sense. In nature, the last light a plant sees at the end of the day is far-red, and this signifies to the plant that it should “turn-off”. In the morning it sees red light and it wakes up. In this way a plant measures how long ago it last saw red light and adjusts its growth accordingly. (ch. 1, “What A Plant Sees”, pg. 21-2)
There’s an obvious analogy with a computer automatically turning itself off and on, which would make phytochrome and its associated chemicals a kind of hardware created by the software of the genes. Plants share some of that software with human beings: in one fascinating section, Chamovitz discusses the links between healthy plants and sick people:
The arabidopsis [A. thaliana, mustard plant] genome contains BRCA, CFTR, and several hundred other genes associated with human disease or impairment because they are essential for basic cellular biology. These important genes had already evolved 1.5 billion years ago in the single-celled organism that was the common evolutionary ancestor to both plants and animals. (ch. 4, “What A Plant Hears”, pg. 105)
What a Plant Knows stimulates human minds as it discusses plant senses. It’s one of the best briefest, or briefest best, books on science I’ve ever read, packing a lot of history and scientific information into six chapters. Plants don’t move much, but they’re a very lively topic and botany is a good way to understand and appreciate biology and scientific research better.
The leaves break forth in merry green:
Far on the hill their laughter’s seen.
The moons roll by; their story’s told:
They fall in evanescent gold.
The Pocket Guide to The Trees of Britain and Northern Europe, Alan Mitchell, illustrated by David More (1990)
Leafing through this book after I first bought it, I suddenly grabbed at it, because I thought one of the illustrations was real and that a leaf was about to slide off the page and drop to the floor. It was an easy mistake to make, because David More is a good artist. That isn’t surprising: good artists are often attracted to trees. I think it’s a mathemattraction. Trees are one of the clearest and commonest examples of natural fractals, or shapes that mirror themselves on smaller and smaller scales. In trees, trunks divide into branches into branchlets into twigs into twiglets, where the leaves, well distributed in space, wait to eat the sun.
When deciduous, or leaf-dropping, trees go hungry during the winter, this fractal structure is laid bare. And when you look at a bare tree, you’re looking at yourself, because humans are fractals too. Our torsos sprout arms sprout hands sprout fingers. Our veins become veinlets become capillaries. Ditto our lungs and nervous systems. We start big and get small, mirroring ourselves on smaller and smaller scales. Fractals make maximum and most efficient use of space and what’s found in me or thee is also found in a tree, both above and below ground. The roots of a tree are also fractals. But one big difference between trees and people is that trees are much freer to vary their general shape. Trees aren’t mirror-symmetrical like animals and that’s another thing that attracts human eyes and human artists. Each tree is unique, shaped by the chance of its seeding and setting, though each species has its characteristic silhouette. David More occasionally shows that bare winter silhouette, but usually draws the trees in full leaf, disposed to eat the sun. Trees can also be identified by their leaves alone and leaves too are fractals. The veins of a leaf divide and sub-divide, carrying the raw materials and the finished products of photosynthesis to and from the trunk and roots. Trees are giants that work on a microscopic scale, manufacturing themselves from photons and molecules of water and carbon dioxide.
We eat or sculpt what they manufacture, as Alan Mitchell describes in the text of this book:
The name “Walnut” comes from the Anglo-Saxon for “foreign nut” and was in use before the Norman Conquest, probably dating from Roman times. It may refer to the fruit rather than the tree but the Common Walnut, Juglans regia, has been grown in Britain for a very long time. The Romans associated their god Jupiter (Jove) with this tree, hence the Latin name juglans, “Jove’s acorn (glans) or nut”… The wood [of Black Walnut, Juglans nigra] is like that of Common Walnut and both are unsurpassed for use as gunstocks because, once seasoned and worked, neither moves at all and they withstand shock particularly well. They are also valued in furniture for their good colour and their ability to take a high polish. (entry for “Walnuts”, pg. 18)
That’s from the first and longer section, devoted to “Broadleaved Trees and Palms”; in the second section, “Conifers”, devoted to pines and their relatives, maths appears in a new form. Pine-cones embody the Fibonacci sequence, one of the most famous of all number sequences or series. Start with 1 and 1, then add the pair and go on adding pairs: 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144… That’s the Fibonacci sequence, named after the Italian mathematician Leonardo Fibonacci (c.1170-c.1245). And if you examine the two spirals created by the scales of a pine-cone, clockwise and counter-clockwise, you’ll find that there are, say, five spirals in one direction and eight in another, or eight and thirteen. The scales of a pineapple and petals of many flowers behave in a similar way. These patterns aren’t fractals like branches and leaves, but they’re also about distributing living matter efficiently through space. Mitchell doesn’t discuss any of this mathematics, but it’s there implicitly in the illustrations and underlies his text. Even the toxicity of the yew is ultimately mathematical, because the effect of toxins is determined by their chemical shape and its interaction with the chemicals in our bodies. Micro-geometry can be noxious. Or nourishing:
The Yews are a group of conifers, much more primitive than those which bear cones. Each berry-like fruit has a single large seed, partially enclosed in a succulent red aril which grows up around it. The seed is, like the foliage, very poisonous to people and many animals, but deer and rabbits eat the leaves without harm. Yew has extremely strong and durable wood [and the] Common Yew, Taxus baccata, is nearly immortal, resistant to almost every pest and disease of importance, and immune to stress from exposure, drought and cold. It is by a long way the longest-living tree we have and many in country churchyards are certainly much older than the churches, often thousands of years old. Since the yews pre-date the churches, the sites may have been holy sites and the yews sacred trees, possibly symbols of immortality, under which the Elders met. (entry for “Yews”, pg. 92)
This isn’t a big book, but there’s a lot to look at and read. I’d like a doubtful etymology to be true: some say “book” is related to “beech”, because beech-bark or beech-leaves were used for writing on. Bark is another way of identifying a tree and another aspect of their dendro-mathematics, in its texture, colours and patterns. But trees can please the ear as well as the eye: the dendrophile A.E. Housman (1859-1936) recorded how “…overhead the aspen heaves / Its rainy-sounding silver leaves” (A Shropshire Lad, XXVI). There’s maths there too. An Aspen sounds like rain in part because its many leaves, which tremble even in the lightest breeze, are acting like many rain-drops. That trembling is reflected in the tree’s scientific name: Populus tremula, “trembling poplar”. Housman, a Latin professor as well as an English poet, could have explained how tree-nouns in Latin are masculine in form: Alnus, Pinus, Ulmus; but feminine in gender: A. glutinosa, P. contorta, U. glabra (Common Alder, Lodgepole Pine, Wych-Elm). He also sums up why trees please in these simple and ancient words of English:
Give me a land of boughs in leaf,
A land of trees that stand;
Where trees are fallen, there is grief;
I love no leafless land.
Each year the patient hand of time
Plucks bare the oak, the ash, the lime,
And sharp against the Autumn sky
The subtle branches soothe the eye.
When Winter’s spell is fast on earth
The trees await the sun’s rebirth,
And pearled in frost, they stand and seem
Designed for beauty in a dream.
Then Spring revokes the spell and wills
The early leaves, the silver rills:
And symbol’d songs, more sweet than words,
Fill air with urgence of the birds.
Last, Summer’s lion roars his heat:
And pollen drifts and leaves compete
To drink the golden tide of light
Ere fall the sable drought of night.