We’ve all been to that dark, dreaded place deep in the corners of our minds before, a place where few care to linger. In the produce aisle, the backyard vegetable garden, reaching for seconds from the salad bowl … do plants know when we’re eating them?
Researchers at the University of Missouri think they might have answer. Disclaimer to all our vegetarian/vegan readers: It’s the stuff of your worst nightmares.
Here’s how the researchers figured it out. A caterpillar eating leaves sends vibrations throughout a plant. Same goes for a passing breeze, or gust of wind. To determine to what extent plants can sense them, scientists made audio versions of both types of vibrations and tested them on thale cress, a plant related to broccoli, kale, and cabbage. Modern Farmer reports:
Turns out, the thale cress actually produces some mustard oils and sends them through the leaves to deter predators (the oils are mildly toxic when ingested). And the study showed that when the plants felt or heard the caterpillar-munching vibrations, they sent out extra mustard oils into the leaves. When they felt or heard other vibrations? Nothing. It’s a far more dynamic defense than scientists had realized: the plant is more aware of its surroundings and able to respond than expected.
OK, so unless you’re eating literally off the vine (which should spare you a meltdown at the cutting board), plants probably can’t feel you. But scientists are still unsure what part of the plant allows it to feel or hear the vibrations, or if certain plants experience the sensations more strongly than others.
Sorry to be a major buzzkill here folks, but that kale salad had a family, too.