Lessons from “Lessons from Plants”
Lessons From Plants (Harvard University Press, 2021) By Beronda L. Montgomery.
Reviewed by Arpita Yadav
I was first introduced to this book by the author herself on a Plantae webinar. I got a Zoom link from one of my colleagues in the plant biology department at UMass Amherst. Then, Dr. Montgomery sparked my curiosity in reading her book. Here I write a short overview so you too may be motivated by her insights.
Lessons from Plants is an investigation into behavior and adaptability that might help humans improve and thrive. These were ideas the author had as a child while observing her mother taking care of plants at home. In school she learned what plants do for people. We depend on them for food and oxygen. Dr. Montgomery was a lot more fascinated by what plants do for themselves. As much as we have studied flora, us humans have more to learn.
We don’t usually think of plants as being intelligent, but they are smart in ways that scientists are still discovering. Dr. Montgomery shows us the biases we have against plants and tries to dispel them. Through anecdotes, many drawn from her childhood interactions with plants, she pulls the reader along. Her earliest experiences experimenting with and observing plants grow was when she was in kindergarten.
The first chapter discusses how plants adapt to their changing surroundings. Plants use light to generate food, a process known as photosynthesis, as most of us are aware. Few people realize that light has an impact on each step of a plant’s development. They aren’t merely passive light recipients. They measure the amount of light received in terms of photons per unit surface area of leaves. Plants adjust the amount of light coming to them, budgeting their energy in response to shifting environmental conditions.
Dr. Montgomery takes us on a journey into the world of plant hormones. The hormone balance shifts from root to shoot and vice versa depending on the needs of the plants.
At the end, Montgomery poses a series of questions. My favorite: As humans, do we observe and respond to things around us in our best possible ways? Plants use a strategy she calls, “Process and Proceed.” We can learn something from plants about how to be aware of our environment and respond to shifting realities.
In the second Chapter, Friend or Foe, Dr. Montgomery describes how plants relate to their neighbors. They recognize who is in their vicinity and whether to compete or to collaborate.
Botanists believe that most species follow the “detection — judgement — decision” paradigm to assess whether the neighbor is a friend or foe. For example, if many plants are growing together in an area, there will be some plants whose leaves will be shaded by other plants and consequently they will not receive the amount of light they need for their growth. Plants detect or perceive change and respond by elongating their stems to reach the optimum light conditions in a process known as shade avoidance response.
Sometimes instead of competing and cooperating for light, plants just don’t race for light but respond with tolerance. They are called shade tolerant plants because they produce adequate amount of food in limited light conditions.
Plants also have a battleground under the soil with roots battling for nutrients. They extend their roots to the available nutrients, or they sometimes collaborate with or make symbiotic relationships with microorganisms for making the nutrients in an available form to both themselves and their neighbors.
Plants release volatile chemicals which act as signals when they are encountered by their enemies. These volatile compounds protect the plants indirectly or directly against herbivores, or any damage occurred to them.
The symbiotic relationship that plants develop with fungi is another classic example of cooperation or mutual benefit with other species. This association of plant and fungus is called mycorrhizae. The fungus essentially helps plants acquire nitrogen, phosphorous and water. Plants in turn offer food to the fungus in the form of carbon compounds. This collaboration can lead to success, longevity, and sustained life.
Dr. Montgomery compares this behavior of plants to her own professional network. Observing vegetation has improved her strength and focus as a biochemist by teaching her to enlarge her circle.
In the third chapter, Risk to Win, we learn that like animals, plants perceive and assess risks to their growth, development, and survival. The fact that plants are in the same place and same environment throughout their entire life cycle gives us a frame of reference for their challenges.
A chapter on “Transformations” shows the ability of plants to change their environment to make use of the available resources. Using the aftermath of the catastrophe of the fire and radiation of a volcanic eruption as an example, Dr. Montgomery describes the resilience of plants. Unlike animals, they have the capacity to recover more quickly in a damaged environment. This is attributed to the activity of plant meristems in roots and shoots which can regenerate into new tissues or organs.
Ecologists refer to long term changes as succession. Swarming is an example of collaborative behavior also found among plants. In 2012, scientists discovered that roots are actively engaged in swarming. For example, roots of corn seedlings grow in the same direction even when provided homogenous growth conditions. Swarming in plant roots help plants to optimize interaction with the environment and improve the nutrient solubility in soil locally.
A life lesson any organism can learn from plants could be summarized as, “Bloom where you are planted.” This is to say, plants don’t just function within their environment, they actively interact with and transform their environment.
In a chapter titled, “A diverse community,” Dr. Montgomery describes how during fieldwork, she always contemplates coexistences of different species. Niche complementarity enables plant species to coexist without being detrimental to any. Each species occupies a slightly different niche and has different needs for resources which results in maximum use of the resources in a particular community.
Farmers who practice intercropping are taking advantage of synergies that we had observed and refined. A prime example is “the three sisters.” Growing corn, beans, and squash together boosts the productivity of each member of the triad that goes beyond what they could achieve individually. Corn plants support the beans to twine up the stalk. In turn, the bean spreads its roots, releasing a substance that makes nitrogen in the soil available to the corn. Squash covers the soil surface and protects the root systems of the other two sisters. They show how mutualistic growth can lead to productive growth.
In the last chapter, “Plan for success,” Dr. Montgomery shows us how plants make decisions based on environmental surveillance. Because energy is finite, they budget it carefully. After assessing the changes in the environmental conditions, plants decide either to survive and continue to be productive or make plans to support the next generation if survival is impossible.
One example is the vibrant, often outrageous, bouquet of colors trees display with the arrival of fall in the New England town I currently call home. Deciduous trees and shrubs shed their leaves to prepare and conserve energy for the overwinter. Plants stop producing chlorophyll, to conserve energy, and degrade the existing chlorophyll. Afterall, they will need that energy to maintain the photosynthetic apparatus.
Montgomery’s meditative approach to understanding the world around her, often leads back to the same question: “What would a plant do?”