: The Human Age

Your Passion Flower Is Sexting You

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Your Passion Flower Is Sexting You

Life takes many forms, as does intelligenceplants may not possess a brain, but they can be diabolically clever, manipulative, and vicious. So it was only a matter of time. Plants have begun texting for help. Thanks to clever new digital devices, a dry philodendron, undernourished hibiscus, or sadly neglected wandering Jew can either text or tweet to its owner over the Internet. Humans like to feel appreciated, so a begonia may also send a simple Thank you textwhen its happy, as gardeners like to say, meaning healthy and well tended. Picture your Boston fern home alone placing botanicalls. But why should potted plants be the only ones to reassure their humans? Another company has found a way for crops to send a text message in unison, letting their farmer know if shes doing a good enough job to deserve a robust harvest. Sensors lodged in the soil respond to moisture and send prerecorded messages customized by the owner. What is the sound of one hand of bananas clapping?

Plants texting humans may be new, but malcontent plants have always been chatting among themselves. When an elm tree is being attacked by insects, it does the chemical equivalent of broadcasting Im hurt! You could be next! alerting others in its grove to whip up some dandy poisons. World-class chemists, plants vie with Lucrezia Borgia dressed in green. If a human kills with poison, we label it a wicked and premeditated crime, one no plea of self-defense can excuse. But plants dish out their nastiest potions every day, and we wholeheartedly forgive them. They may lack a mind, or even a brain, but they do react to injury, fight to survive, act purposefully, enslave humans (through the likes of coffee, tobacco, opium), and gab endlessly among themselves.

Strawberry, bracken, clover, reeds, bamboo, ground elder, and lots more all grow their own social networksdelicate runners (really horizontal stems) linking a grove of individuals. If a caterpillar chews on a white clover leaf, the message races through the colony, which ramps up its chemical weaponry. Stress a walnut tree and it will brew its own caustic aspirin and warn its relatives to do the same. Remember Molly Ivinss needle-witted quip about an old Texan congressman: If his IQ slips any lower, well have to water him twice a day? She clearly misjudged the acumen of plants. Plants are not mild-mannered. Some can be murderous, seductive, deceitful, venomous, unscrupulous, sophisticated, and downright barbaric.

Since they cant run after a mate, they go to phenomenal lengths to con animals into performing sex for them, using a vaudeville trunk full of costumes. For instance, some orchids disguise themselves as the sex organs of female bees so that male bees will try to mate with them and leave wearing pollen pantaloons. Since they cant run from danger, they devise a pharmacopeia of poisons and an arsenal of simple weapons: hideous killers like strychnine and atropine; ghoulish blisterers like poison ivy and poison sumac; slashers like holly and thistle waving scalpel-sharp spines. Blackberries and roses wield belts of curved thorns. Each hair of a stinging nettle brandishes a tiny syringe full of formic acid and histamine to make us itch or run.

Just in case youre tempted to cuddle your passion flower when you teach it to send text messagesresist the urge. Passion flowers release cyanide if their cell walls are broken by a biting insect or a fumbling human. Of course, because nature is often an arms race, leaf-eating caterpillars have evolved an immunity to cyanide. Not us, alas. People have died from accidentally ingesting passion flower, daffodils, yew, autumn crocuses, monkshood, rhododendron, hyacinths, peace lilies, foxglove, oleander, English ivy, and the like. And one controversial theory about the Salem witch trials is that the whole shameful drama owes its origin to an especially wet winter when the rye crop was infected with ergot, an LSD-like hallucinogen that, perhaps breathed in by those grinding it into flour, caused women to act bewitched.

Today were of two minds about undisciplined plants just as we are about wild animals. We want them everywhere around us, but not roaming freely. We keep pet plants indoors or outside, provided theyre well behaved and dont run riot. Weeds alarm us. And yet, as Patrick Blanc points out, it is precisely this form of freedom of the plant world that most fascinates us. Devious and dangerous as plants can be, they adorn every facet of our lives, from courtship to burial. They fill our rooms with piquant scents, dazzling tableaux, and gravity-defying aerial ballets and contortions as they unfold petals and climb toward the sun. Think of them as the original Cirque du Soleil. Many an African violet has given a human shrinking violet a much-needed interkingdom friendship.

Since they do demand looking after, and we do love our social networks, I expect texting will sweep the plant world, showering us with polite thank-yous and rude complaints. Whats next, a wisteria sexting every time its probed by a hummingbird? A bed of zinnias ranting to online followers as they go to seed?

Surely some playful wordsmiths need to dream up spirited texts for the botanicalling plants to send, telegrams of fulsome fawning or sarcastic taunt. Maybe a little soft soap: You grow girl! Thanks for the TLC. Or think how potent it would be, in the middle of a dinner date, to receive a text from your disgruntled poinsettia that reads: With fronds like you who needs anemones?!

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