Book Notes: What a Plant Knows

What a Plant Knows: a Field Guide for the Senses – Daniel  Chamovitz, Scientific American/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, NY, 2012.

Reviewed by Debra Knapke

I am teaching a new course – for me – at Columbus State Community College.  Its official title is Plant Sciences, but I have told my students that it is 15 weeks of: how do plants survive while rooted in one place and why do they die?  As I was collecting material for the course, I found Daniel Chamovitz’s  book: What a Plant Knows, and began a delightful journey into plant physiology from a different point-of-view.

Chamovitz draws parallels between plant and human senses which is emphasized by the names of the chapters: What a Plant Sees, What a Plant Smells, What a Plant Feels, How a Plant Knows Where It Is, and so forth.  He states that he is not saying that plants experience the world as humans do; plants are not “just like us”.  But, by using a framework of the animal senses we are challenged to think of seeing, hearing, feeling, smelling and proprioception -where we are in space- in a different way.  A way that may allow us to understand ourselves … in a different way.

I had a lot of “oh, wow” moments as my understanding of plants and their processes shifted with the author’s premise.  It is a slim volume, but it took me time to read the text and follow up with the chapter notes.  The references are varied and numerous and I plan to look up quite a few.

This book may not be everyone’s idea of a good read, but I found it fascinating.  Hope you will give it a try.

3 responses to “Book Notes: What a Plant Knows

  1. Hi Debra,

    Thanks for the great review! I’ll be interested if you use the book in your teaching, whether as required or recommended reading, or even as a text book side kick. While we hadn’t considered the use of WHAT A PLANT KNOWS in classes, I’ve been getting feedback that this actually may be a good use of the book. So if you have any feedback yourself regarding this, I’d be happy to hear your experience.

    Danny Chamovitz

  2. July Hays

    I read Daniel Chamovitz’ article on this in New Scientist magazine of August 25, 2012, and agree with you that his insights are valuable in helping us better understand the world around us, at least for a non-scientist. We accept that fruit will ripen better when exposed to ethylene gas, as emitted by other ripening fruit (putting unripe peaches or pears inside a paper bag helps them ripen by capturing the ethylene). Chamovitz says, “Ethylene is a plant hormone that regulates many processes, so being able to smell it has other advantages too, such as in the coordination of leaf-color changes in the autumn.” We might have used “sense it” for “smell it” but Chamovitz is pointing out that in fact there is no difference, only that we use a different word to refer to what humans do. Reading his ideas made me feel how wondrous our world truly is.

  3. Debra Knapke

    I routinely bring books into class so my students have the opportunity to explore the course content through different authors’ perspectives. A few students perused your book during the break and after class (the class meets 2x a week; each class is 2 hours and 20 minutes long). Your book is also in the course bibliography. While I have not taught directly from What a Plant Knows, I’ve used a few of your examples to add more “fun” to the Plant Physiology portion of the course.

    And to July: thanks for chiming in… we do live in a wondrous world!

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