The Private Life of Plants

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

The title of this book contains two words that reveal David Attenborough’s perspective on plants: first, that plants have a “life,” and second, that they engage in “behavior.” These ideas may seem eccentric at first, but after reading the book, the nonbotanist may find himself saying “excuse me” to the grass he walks upon.

Attenborough portrays plants as differing from animals largely in the speed with which they do things. In fact, if one wanted to raise the issue of superiority, after reading this book one would have to wonder which of the kingdoms of living things contains the cleverest species. Plants’ ability to survive far surpasses that of any animal—one bristlecone pine tree in California has been found to be more than 4,600 years old. The abilities of one species of orchid would challenge a team of artists, chemists, and actors, since it is able to mimic—in form, scent, and posture—a female bee so convincingly that male bees attempt to copulate with it, and in the process serve only the orchid by mobilizing its own gametes.

If one suggests that plants are so passive as to leave everything to chance, Attenborough might describe the sinister nature of English dodder, a parasite whose searching tendrils ignore the thin, impoverished stems of its victims but grasp and choke the plump ones. If one offers that plants are hopelessly stuck in the ground, he tells of the sea bean, which can travel four thousand miles from...

(The entire section is 406 words.)