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The secret world of plants


Photo from Pixabay

Is it possible that plants are smarter than we think? After all, they’ve been around on this planet almost longer than any other life form so they must have some tricks up their sleeves. And even though they give us food, shelter, clothing, and medicine we still don’t know that much about them.

Our friends at CBC’s The Nature of Things have gathered some amazing plant facts that might surprise you.

Did you know…

All plants look for food in much the same way as a bear or squirrel does

plant roots

Photo by liz west licensed CC BY 2.0

That’s right! Scientists have shown that when a plant’s roots come across a patch of food, they slow right down so they can eat, the same way a bear slows down its legs to graze on some juicy berries. Only when all the food is gone do the plant’s roots, like the bear, move on to find more food.

All plants can talk

field of flowers

Photo by Riccardo Cuppini licensed CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

It’s true! Chemical signals produced by the flowers and leaves do the talking for them. They can use these signals to call out to insects to let them know it’s a good time to come by and get some nectar and pollen or to send out SOS messages to other plants to let them know when there’s danger in the area.

Plants can sense when they’re under attack and can defend themselves

the wild tobacco plant

Photo by Magnus Manske licensed CC BY-SA 3.0

Just like animals, plants have ways to defend themselves from insects and other animals that might want to munch on their leaves or flowers. One of the ways the wild tobacco plant defends itself is by making an insect-repelling poison in its leaves called “nicotine” that stops most plant-eating insects. They definitely won’t be coming back for seconds!

Some plants can mark insects for other predators

wild tobacco plant flower

Photo by H. Zell licensed CC BY-SA 3.0

Sometimes a plant’s defense systems just aren’t enough to stop insects from munching on them. Luckily, some plants like the wild tobacco have a backup plan. The plant creates a sweet, sugary treat on its stems and leaves that scientists call the “evil lollipop” because it gives leaf-eating caterpillars a bad case of body odour. That body odour then acts like a beacon to let lizards on the ground below the plant know that the caterpillars are available for easy eating.

Some plants fight with other plants

spotted knapweed

Photo by pverdonk licensed CC BY-NC 2.0

Some plants will fight other plants when they’re expanding the area they live in. Invader plants - ones which are not native to a specific location and quickly take over - don’t play fair when it comes to fighting for space. The Spotted Knapweed, can take over an area by making a chemical that prevents the seeds of other plants from growing, killing off a lot of the plants that were already living there.

Plants can identify insects by their saliva

grasshopper eating a leaf

Photo by David Smith licensed CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Yuck! Scientists have shown that that the wild tobacco plant not only recognizes different types of insects depending on their saliva, but it also changes how it defends itself depending on which insect is eating it.

Mother trees can nurture their young

fungal network

Photo by Distant Hill Gardens licensed CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Scientists have found that plants use an underground network help each other out. Looking like long thin fingers, it’s made up of mycelia (say “my-see-lee-uh”), a type of fungus. It’s a perfect way for plants to communicate and share with each other. Amazingly, older Douglas Fir trees can transport their extra food to younger trees that need it.