To his astonishment, Backster found that simply by imagining the dracaena being set on fire he could make it rouse the needle of the polygraph machine, registering a surge of electrical activity suggesting that the plant felt stress. Backster and his collaborators went on to hook up polygraph machines to dozens of plants, including lettuces, onions, oranges, and bananas.
He claimed that plants reacted to the thoughts good or ill of humans in close proximity and, in the case of humans familiar to them, over a great distance. In one experiment designed to test plant memory, Backster found that a plant that had witnessed the murder by stomping of another plant could pick out the killer from a lineup of six suspects, registering a surge of electrical activity when the murderer was brought before it. Some had a stressful response when an egg was cracked in their presence, or when live shrimp were dropped into boiling water, an experiment that Backster wrote up for the International Journal of Parapsychology , in But the book had made its mark on the culture.
Americans began talking to their plants and playing Mozart for them, and no doubt many still do.
This might seem harmless enough; there will probably always be a strain of romanticism running through our thinking about plants. Luther Burbank and George Washington Carver both reputedly talked to, and listened to, the plants they did such brilliant work with. The authors pointed out that electrical and chemical signalling systems have been identified in plants which are homologous to those found in the nervous systems of animals. They also noted that neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine, and glutamate have been found in plants, though their role remains unclear.
It is only human arrogance, and the fact that the lives of plants unfold in what amounts to a much slower dimension of time, that keep us from appreciating their intelligence and consequent success. Plants dominate every terrestrial environment, composing ninety-nine per cent of the biomass on earth. Many plant scientists have pushed back hard against the nascent field, beginning with a tart, dismissive letter in response to the Brenner manifesto, signed by thirty-six prominent plant scientists Alpi et al.
Santa Cruz and one of the signers of the Alpi letter, told me. The controversy is less about the remarkable discoveries of recent plant science than about how to interpret and name them: whether behaviors observed in plants which look very much like learning, memory, decision-making, and intelligence deserve to be called by those terms or whether those words should be reserved exclusively for creatures with brains. No one I spoke to in the loose, interdisciplinary group of scientists working on plant intelligence claims that plants have telekinetic powers or feel emotions.
Nor does anyone believe that we will locate a walnut-shaped organ somewhere in plants which processes sensory data and directs plant behavior. Much of the research on plant intelligence has been inspired by the new science of networks, distributed computing, and swarm behavior, which has demonstrated some of the ways in which remarkably brainy behavior can emerge in the absence of actual brains. A slight, bearded Calabrian in his late forties, he comes across more like a humanities professor than like a scientist. When I visited him earlier this year at the International Laboratory of Plant Neurobiology, at the University of Florence, he told me that his conviction that humans grossly underestimate plants has its origins in a science-fiction story he remembers reading as a teen-ager.
The aliens proceed ruthlessly to exploit us. It creates a resilience. Indeed, many of the most impressive capabilities of plants can be traced to their unique existential predicament as beings rooted to the ground and therefore unable to pick up and move when they need something or when conditions turn unfavorable. A highly developed sensory apparatus is required to locate food and identify threats. The sensory capabilities of plant roots fascinated Charles Darwin, who in his later years became increasingly passionate about plants; he and his son Francis performed scores of ingenious experiments on plants.
Scientists have since found that the tips of plant roots, in addition to sensing gravity, moisture, light, pressure, and hardness, can also sense volume, nitrogen, phosphorus, salt, various toxins, microbes, and chemical signals from neighboring plants. Roots about to encounter an impenetrable obstacle or a toxic substance change course before they make contact with it. Roots can tell whether nearby roots are self or other and, if other, kin or stranger.
Normally, plants compete for root space with strangers, but, when researchers put four closely related Great Lakes sea-rocket plants Cakile edentula in the same pot, the plants restrained their usual competitive behaviors and shared resources. Davis, explained, when I asked him for an example of plant decision-making.
Many drugs, from aspirin to opiates, derive from compounds designed by plants. Unable to run away, plants deploy a complex molecular vocabulary to signal distress, deter or poison enemies, and recruit animals to perform various services for them. A recent study in Science found that the caffeine produced by many plants may function not only as a defense chemical, as had previously been thought, but in some cases as a psychoactive drug in their nectar. The caffeine encourages bees to remember a particular plant and return to it, making them more faithful and effective pollinators.
One of the most productive areas of plant research in recent years has been plant signalling. Sometimes this warning signal contains information about the identity of the insect, gleaned from the taste of its saliva. When antelopes browse acacia trees, the leaves produce tannins that make them unappetizing and difficult to digest.
When food is scarce and acacias are overbrowsed, it has been reported, the trees produce sufficient amounts of toxin to kill the animals. Perhaps the cleverest instance of plant signalling involves two insect species, the first in the role of pest and the second as its exterminator. Several species, including corn and lima beans, emit a chemical distress call when attacked by caterpillars. Parasitic wasps some distance away lock in on that scent, follow it to the afflicted plant, and proceed to slowly destroy the caterpillars.
The first important discoveries in plant communication were made in the lab in the nineteen-eighties, by isolating plants and their chemical emissions in Plexiglas chambers, but Rick Karban, the U. Davis ecologist, and others have set themselves the messier task of studying how plants exchange chemical signals outdoors, in a natural setting.
On a sun-flooded hillside high in the Sierras, he introduced me to the ninety-nine sagebrush plants—low, slow-growing gray-green shrubs marked with plastic flags—that he and his colleagues have kept under close surveillance for more than a decade. Karban, a fifty-nine-year-old former New Yorker, is slender, with a thatch of white curls barely contained by a floppy hat.
He has shown that when sagebrush leaves are clipped in the spring—simulating an insect attack that triggers the release of volatile chemicals—both the clipped plant and its unclipped neighbors suffer significantly less insect damage over the season. Karban believes that the plant is alerting all its leaves to the presence of a pest, but its neighbors pick up the signal, too, and gird themselves against attack.
He found that the more closely related the plants the more likely they are to respond to the chemical signal, suggesting that plants may display a form of kin recognition. Helping out your relatives is a good way to improve the odds that your genes will survive.
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The field work and data collection that go into making these discoveries are painstaking in the extreme. At the bottom of a meadow raked by the slanted light of late summer, two collaborators from Japan, Kaori Shiojiri and Satomi Ishizaki, worked in the shade of a small pine, squatting over branches of sagebrush that Karban had tagged and cut. Using clickers, they counted every trident-shaped leaf on every branch, and then counted and recorded every instance of leaf damage, one column for insect bites, another for disease.
At the top of the meadow, another collaborator, James Blande, a chemical ecologist from England, tied plastic bags around sagebrush stems and inflated the bags with filtered air. After waiting twenty minutes for the leaves to emit their volatiles, he pumped the air through a metal cylinder containing an absorbent material that collected the chemical emissions. At the lab, a gas chromatograph-mass spectrometer would yield a list of the compounds collected—more than a hundred in all.
Blande offered to let me put my nose in one of the bags; the air was powerfully aromatic, with a scent closer to aftershave than to perfume. Research on plant communication may someday benefit farmers and their crops. Plant-distress chemicals could be used to prime plant defenses, reducing the need for pesticides. Karban told me that, in the nineteen-eighties, people working on plant communication faced some of the same outrage that scientists working on plant intelligence a term he cautiously accepts do today.
It is considered one of the flowers in the garden of the Queen Mother of the West and from that longevity. The chrysanthemum is a much loved flower in China and is often portrayed in pictures. It is a symbol of joy and a wish for peaceful retirement. The plant represents autumn and so contrasts with the plum which is the flower of spring. It can withstand frost and so exemplifies stoicism in the face of disappointment.
There are many varieties of chrysanthemum in a great range of colors. The petals can be used to make a soothing, herbal tea and the petals are also used to flavor wine. The Chinese cinnamon or Cassia spice tree Cinnamomum cassia is native to southern China. Its aromatic bark has been used in cooking for thousands of years. Osmanthus flowers give a fine fragrance which is given the same character as cassia. When depicted with the plum which flowers in Spring it denotes a wish for never ending fragrance meaning a long honorable life.
With pomegranate and gourds it gives the wish for many successful sons. It is a fast growing tree and there is a legend that there was a giant cinnamon tree which grew so fast that its owner could never keep it under control. There is also a legend that the moon has a magical cassia tree which generates a drug giving immortality. A creeping plant often with tendrils especially vines is sometimes used in paintings to symbolize immortality.
Grapes and grapevines are a common motif on Ming dynasty porcelain. Vines are often shown in combination with rats , gourds and grapes. Cypress trees live to a great age; even though they grow gnarled and twisted they still put out lush green growth. The finger lemon is a small citrus tree Citrus medica that bears a strange fruit with finger-like protuberances. It is rarely eaten in China, but instead hung up to give a fresh, citrus fragrance to a room. In this regard it may be shown along side of a butterfly to express a wish for a long and happy retirement.
It is also a good luck talisman by gamblers. It was believed that it cried when it was harvested. From its coincidental shape it has been used as a powerful magic ingredient. It is now a well-known health tonic, but with no proven efficacy, it was originally harvested in Shanxi province , but now comes mainly from farms Jilin province and Korea. It has been collected so voraciously that is extinct in the wild in China. The jujube tree sometimes called the Chinese date tree bears succulent fruit. If combined with a lychee in a picture this can be taken to mean a wish for children to be born soon; or if combined with a cinnamon tree a desire for early promotion to high office.
The Lychee or Lichee is best known for its white juicy fruit from late summer; the flesh of the fruit surrounds a large, gnarled kernel. In art it symbolizes summer and a wish for children. The latter wish gives it a role in the marriage celebration. The fruits are considered yang in traditional medicine and so are eaten to offset an excess of yin.
The transitory nature of the flowers is said to help you forget your troubles. Its rapid sequence of flowers makes it a symbol for childbearing and is therefore a suitable gift for newly weds.
The lotus is a much revered motif in Chinese art. Its symbolism comes from Buddhism , it is a plant that grows in the stinking mud of marshes and yet produces pure white blossom, so it symbolizes transformation from evil to good.
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It directly symbolizes summer, purity and fruitfulness. There are many other associations: one of the eight immortals He Xiangu holds a lotus flower; one of the Heavenly twins He-he also holds one; a lotus with a goldfish it symbolizes the wish for an abundance of gold; with a duck a wish for happiness; with a heron a desire for progression Like the lily , the lotus has been associated with bound feet to express their beauty.
All parts of the plants have their own name and usage; the fruits and leaves as food; the seeds as medicine. The wheel-like form at the center of its flower symbolizes the wheel of life. The Buddha is said to have contemplated a bank of lotus plants; some mired in mud; some in bud; some below water. He saw the plants as representing the people he wished to bring to flower in the full purity of mind. The magnolia is a much loved flower in China. Over the centuries varieties have been selectively bred for early flowering, bloom size and color.
Legend has it that at one time only the Emperor himself and his closest favorites were allowed to grow the shrub. Like the peony it symbolizes female beauty and so with a butterfly symbolizes a young man's quest for love. In a painting with bees a magnolia gives the meaning of self-esteem. The bark of the plant is used in traditional medicine. Melons are often shown with vine like foliage. The town of Turpan in Xinjiang is famous for growing many sweet melons in the hot summer heat.
Mulberry trees are very widely planted in China because they are the food plant of the silkworm. In some areas a twig of mulberry was worn to indicate that you were in mourning. The flowering time is just right for the New Year festival. Families force them to flower early by growing in a pot with water and pebbles. It is particularly treasured in Fujian province.
The Art of Perfumery, and Methods of Obtaining the Odors of Plants by Piesse
Opium was used as a medicine for centuries before it became a problem in China. It was when it was smoked that it caused huge problems with addiction. Opium poppies were grown for centuries in the south west of China - particularly in Yunnan. The poppy flower appears on some porcelain and represents the twelfth month. Originally it was not illegal to buy opium, but there was a ban on importing the drug into China. The British inherited an opium production area in northern India and opium trade with China when they conquered India.
This opium was purer and cheaper than that produced in China and began to be illegally imported. It was the middle ranking officials who seem to have suffered most from addiction and this brought the whole Imperial administration to collapse. Oranges are grown in southern China and were popular presents for children. Persimmons and tangerines together give a wish for success in all things. Lots of oranges and tangerines are consumed at the New Year festival. A tribute of oranges used to be sent from Fujian province to Beijing in time for the Spring festivities.
Orange peel is considered an effective medicine. The boy Lu ji is put forward as an example of filial piety because when he was given some oranges instead of eating them himself he gave them to his mother. The orchid and particularly its fragrance is associated with female beauty, it stands for modesty and refinement. Although beautiful it tends to grow in small groups in isolated areas rather than as a great mass of blooms. There are very many different types of wild orchid in China which are highly prized.
Lan is a popular girl's name. The orchid was even praised by Confucius as an emblem of the perfect man. Together with bamboo the orchid is considered an ideal subject for painting. Walking ashore, they began following a street that led to a Nubian village. It was during this stroll that Ellena saw, hanging low in the trees that lined the street, plump green mangoes. The fruit has a complex, authentically exotic smell: it is rich and fresh simultaneously, a rare combination.
The scent is also ephemeral. The fruit exudes an odor only when it is on the tree. Once you pick it, the smell deteriorates; within sixty seconds, it is essentially gone. Ellena was beguiled by this elusive fragrance. Green mango, he suggested to his companions, could form the base of Nil.
Dubrule pressed her nose into the branches, finding a hint of apricot and grapefruit. At one point, Gautier frowned; she detected the smell of nail-polish remover. Acetone is often used in perfumery, he told me; it provides a lightning-like jolt. In the conference room, Gautier slapped the touche marked AG3 onto the table.
Ellena was unruffled. All three concoctions, he said, had been inspired by the Aswan mangoes. And the rejected AG3? Ellena smiled. When Dubrule had held a green mango outside the Nubian village, she had detected a carroty tinge. Gautier was pleased that Ellena had remembered to include this element in the perfume. She stood up sharply. Ellena rolled up his sleeves. Dubrule sprayed his forearms with puffs of his three viscous assemblages; they settled onto his skin in small slicks.
The women smelled the three fragrances several more times, glancing at each other. They were expressly built to blossom and fade, over time, on the body. As a result, most perfumes today are constructed to smell good, for a few seconds, on a paper strip—which is a perversion, unless you happen to be made of paper. Dubrule was definitive. She did have one concern: would men be able to wear it?
Though Gautier was, wisely, cautious of being too radical for the market, she nevertheless had decided that the Jardins collection would be unisex. The European Union has a list of banned toxins and allergens and is constantly adding perfume ingredients to it. Meanwhile, Gautier stared at the transparent essai. He soon received a call from Gautier.
Yet, she continued, changes were required. Both women thought that la persistance , the amount of time the fragrance lasts on skin, needed to be lengthened. And they wanted the smell of green mango to be more present on the skin. Good luck, Gautier said. Ellena was encouraged. At Symrise, Ellena had access to more than a thousand ingredients—some natural, some synthetic. He used only a fraction of them. Ellena is a minimalist in materials and a maximalist in thought. Over the years, he has refined a sort of Bauhaus School approach to perfumery: clean scents made from deceptively simple chemical formulas.
Guerlain is baroque: put this in, and this, and this. Someone once defined sillage to me, rather metaphysically, as the sense of a person being present in the room after she has left. Creating a sillage that is potent but not overpowering is tricky. He then added a few more ingredients, including a natural distillation of honey.
It took him two years to perfect his formula, which in the end contained twenty ingredients—very few, for a perfume. And it has a sillage worthy of Guerlain. A master perfumer like Ellena has memorized hundreds, if not thousands, of recipes for manufacturing smells. Many complex natural scents can be conjured with only a few ingredients. The scent of freesia, he explained, is created by combining two simple molecules: beta-ionone and linalool, both synthetics.
To give freesia a cold, metallic edge, a touch of allyl amyl glycolate is added. The smell of orange blossom is made by combining linalool and methyl anthranilate, which smells like Concord grapes.
The Intelligent Plant
In my presence, Ellena once dipped a touche into a molecule called isobutyl phenal acetate, which has a purely chemical smell, and another touche into vanillin, a synthetic version of vanilla. He placed the two paper strips together, waved them, and chocolate appeared in the air. I use two. The combined smell was a precise simulation of Coca-Cola.
The art of perfumery, Ellena believes, is the art of gracefully combining different chemicals, some natural, some synthetic. The first perfume synthetics were created in the nineteenth century. Aldehydes, which were synthesized in the eighteen-eighties, are the key to Chanel No. Synthetics such as ambroxan, which boosts wood and amber notes in perfumes, and karanal, which adds a strong woody accent, are regularly used in fragrances.
Ellena is proud to be an illusionist. I lie. I create an illusion that is actually stronger than reality.
On the flight back from Aswan, Ellena had jotted down a formula of thirteen ingredients, which had become his rough sketch for AD2. A natural essence of bitter orange, he had decided, would simulate the freshness of the green mango. He would also add rosin, the resin that musicians rub on violin bows. Of his original thirteen ingredients, he eventually eliminated two. Opopanax, a synthetic that he had expected to produce a resinous smell, ended up evoking mushrooms. Another chemical, lionone, was supposed to help convey the smell of mango, but it interacted with the other materials to create the illusion of apricot.