How ‘Intelligent’ Are Trees?


When it rains every day for months, the trees start closing in around our house in Fish Bay. We left most of the native trees on the property, and planted Arica palms and bougainvillea in the yard. When they all get bushy they block the path and the view. Definitely time to sharpen up the machete and get out the clippers.

Sometimes I feel a little badly about chopping back the native trees, but most of them don’t seem to mind a trim. The invasive trees I wish would disappear, like the false tamarinds, often grow back even more aggressively no matter how much I cut them.   

 I mentioned my tree-trimming work to a friend in the city, and she recommended that I read a recent article in the New Yorker magazine on ‘The Intelligent Plant’ by Michael Pollan. Back in 1973 a book called The Secret Life of Plants had suggested that plants could feel stress when people even thought about harming them. I wondered if she viewed me as a tree mugger.   

In the article, Pollan reported that the claims about plants having feelings have not been substantiated. However some scientists have documented plant behaviors that “look very much like learning, memory, decision-making and intelligence” as plants respond to a wide variety of information about their environment – including available levels of light, water, and nutrients, as well as temperature and soil conditions.

Even in the 1880s, Darwin’s research led him to believe that there was a type of intelligence in the root tips of plants that allowed them to process sensory information and in that way adapt to their environment.

More recent studies have shown that plants also communicate through chemical and electrical signals, and even share and information through widespread underground webs of fungi. Although most scientists do not conclude from this information that trees are ‘conscious’, it does seem that they may actually be ‘intelligent’ even though they do not have brains.

In fact, the lack of a brain may make plants more resilient to the impacts of environmental changes and destructive events.  They can lose up to 90 percent of their mass and still survive and grow back.  (Plus they can make their own food from sunlight and water.) 

Rather than viewing plants as insensate, lower life forms, Pollan suggests that their way of adapting to the world could provide a model for our own future, one that is “organized around systems and technologies that are networked, decentralized, modular…and green, able to nourish themselves on light”.

It’s interesting to think about what we could learn from the trees about survival skills – especially the trees that are well-adapted to island life. In the short term I am still planning to cut back the trees in my way, knowing they can manage okay with a few less branches. I’m sure some of them will still be going strong long after I am gone.