Ask A Plant Queen: Do Plants Have Feelings?

Welcome to Ask A Plant Queen, where with the help of Tula founder and bona fide plant expert Christan Summers, we'll answer every question you've ever had about the care, keeping, and presentation of houseplants. No need for you — or your pretty green pals — to thank us.
Question:
Okay, so this may sound a little weird, but…. do plants have feelings? Can they get angry? This is really a question two friends have posed this week after observing their plants seemingly "throwing" their leaves? (One of these plants is a Fiddle Leaf Fig, if that makes a difference.) Is this a thing, or just too much anthropomorphizing by us humans?
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Answer:
This doesn’t sound weird at all. This is in fact, a much-debated question and subject in the plant world. And what has surfaced over the years in an effort to answer these questions may blow your mind about the life of plants.
If you have read the famous 1970’s best-selling book, The Secret Life of Plants you know that Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird were totally convinced that plants not only have emotions but also intuition. They conducted all sorts of experiments with plants – playing music, talking to plants, vibrations, etc. But their findings were discredited. Now fast forward nearly 50 years, and it has never been scientifically proven that plants have feelings.
Let’s take a quick step back because it’s important to note that we describe the ability to have feelings by intelligence. And since plants do not have brains, nor a central nervous system (which is how intelligence is defined), it is said to be impossible for them to have emotions and the ability to reason or feel.
But why then, do plants twist and turn in reaction to light? Why do invasive plants invade? Why does the Mimosa pucida (sensitive plant) curl up and close when touched? How to carnivorous plants know to devour a fly at the perfect moment – and why do they eat flies in the first place?!
Plants may not have feelings but they are indeed alive and have been described as sentient life forms that have “tropic” and “nastic” responses to stimuli. Plants can sense water, light, and gravity — they can even defend themselves and send signals to other plants to warn that danger is here, or near.
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For example, when your friend told you that their fiddle leaf fig was “throwing” leaves, well that was a tropic response to danger. And the danger in this case was most likely a change in environment, water, or light condition. A fiddle leaf fig, or Ficus Lyrata is very sensitive to its environment and will respond dramatically if it does not receive the light or water that it needs to hold onto those big, beautiful leaves. For the purposes of this article, let’s assume the Ficus was not receiving the light it needed to thrive. Since light is food for a plant, and the only job of a plant is to survive, it will drop its lower leaves to preserve energy when light is not sufficient.
So, going back to your friend, their Ficus sensed danger. It was not receiving what it needed to survive. Its response was to preserve – stay alive! So that meant, lose those bottom leaves so it could have enough energy to grow new leaves. If anything gets in the way of a plant succeeding in its only job — to grow, it will respond and do what is necessary to survive.
Other tropic responses are illustrated in the slow bending, wrapping and vining of plants towards light. Invasive plants like the passiflora vine is a fast grower and uses tentacle-like spirals to clasp onto other mediums (like plants and buildings) in order to reach more sunlight — aka food. It will cover its host plant which will unfortunately suffer, but that doesn’t matter to the passiflora, it doesn’t feel pity, its job is only to survive.
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Nastic responses are faster than tropic responses and can be seen right before your eye. Let’s take the venus fly trap, which is a carnivorous plant that grows in the peat bogs of the Carolinas. It presents a perfect case of how a plant reacts to touch to ensure survival and reproduction. The problem for the Venus Fly Trap is that the peat bogs of the Carolinas do not have a sufficient supply of Nitrogen or Phosphorous. So, it has developed an aggressive tactic of trapping prey that have the nutrients it needs to survive. The Venus Fly Trap uses nectar and a well-designed landing pad to attract insects and upon landing on the plant’s convex lobes, the insect will make contact with teeny tiny hairs which trigger a timer. If the insect does not move in time, snap! Meal time and the plant gets its much-needed nutrients to survive.
Without getting too carried away with all the many wild facts of plants and their sentient lives, let’s stop there. And next time you return from vacation note the condition your plants are in before you leave, and the condition they are in when you return. This works best during the grow season, but I promise you will notice a stronger turn towards the light, or a new leaf unfurling — or perhaps a few discarded leaves because you forgot to water and/or open the blinds.
They may not ‘feel’ but they do sense and depending on opinion, the ability to sense the way plants do could be more incredible than any feeling we humans experience.