Decoding the Unseen: How Plants Communicate

For Plants

February 24, 2024

Plants might not have a central nervous system, eyes, or a brain, but they are far from passive entities. They interact with their environment and each other in surprisingly sophisticated ways, which we’re only just beginning to understand. One of these ways is through communication.

Communication in plants happens through a variety of mechanisms. These include volatile organic compounds, root exudates, and mycorrhizal networks.


Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)

Airborne signals are one of the primary ways plants communicate. They release volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into the air in response to stress or damage.

For example, when a plant is being eaten by a herbivore, it can release specific VOCs that signal to other plants of the same species in the vicinity. These other plants, upon detecting the VOCs, can then ramp up their production of defensive compounds, making them less palatable to the herbivores.

Plants produce VOCs through a series of biochemical reactions. These reactions are typically instigated by an enzyme, which acts as a catalyst to convert one or more compounds into a volatile form. For instance, when a plant is under stress or physically damaged, the enzyme lipoxygenase triggers a series of reactions that lead to the formation of VOCs. These VOCs are then released into the air through the plant’s stomata – small openings on the surface of leaves. This is a complex and finely-tuned process, with the type and amount of VOCs produced varying depending on the species of the plant and the nature of the stressor.


Relevant Research

Volatile signaling in plant-plant interactions: “Talking trees”

This article delves into the molecular mechanisms of VOCs in plants, focusing on how plants can “talk” to each other through these compounds. It provides a detailed look at the role of VOCs in plant-plant and plant-insect interactions, as well as the potential applications of this knowledge in agriculture.


Root Exudates

Root exudates are another method of plant communication. These are compounds that plants secrete into the soil from their roots. Root exudates can alter the microbial community in the soil, influencing which microbes are present and in what quantities. This can affect the availability of nutrients in the soil, the plant’s resistance to disease, and even the growth of other plants.

In a scenario where a plant is experiencing a nutrient deficiency, it may release specific root exudates into the soil. These exudates can selectively attract beneficial microbes which are capable of converting unavailable nutrients in the soil into forms that the plant can absorb. This not only helps the plant to overcome its nutrient deficiency, but also alters the soil microbiome in a way that could benefit neighboring plants.


Mycorrhizal Networks

Perhaps the most fascinating form of plant communication is through mycorrhizal networks, often referred to as the “Wood Wide Web”. These are networks of fungal threads that connect the roots of different plants, allowing them to exchange nutrients, water, and signals. This symbiotic relationship allows plants to support each other.

Mycorrhizal networks start to develop when a type of fungi called mycorrhizal fungi forms a symbiotic relationship with the roots of a plant. The fungi penetrate the roots of the plant and extend their mycelium, a network of filamentous structures, into the surrounding soil.

The mycelium acts like an extension of the plant’s root system, reaching areas that the plant roots cannot access and absorbing nutrients and water. This mycelium can connect the root systems of different plants, forming a mycorrhizal network.

This network enables the exchange of nutrients and signals between the interconnected plants. For instance, nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen, which are critical for plant growth but often limited in the soil, can be absorbed by the fungi and transferred to the plant. In return, the plant provides the fungi with carbohydrates derived from photosynthesis.

Take a tree that’s nestled in the shade, its branches and leaves hidden from the sun’s warming rays. This tree, despite its lack of sunlight exposure, might still receive an extra helping of carbon, a critical component for its growth and survival. Through the underground superhighway known as the mycorrhizal network. A tree basking in the sunlight, bathing in rich carbon dioxide and conducting photosynthesis at an accelerated rate, generously shares its carbon wealth. This carbon is transported through the vast, intricate web of fungal threads, navigating the subterranean world until it reaches the tree in the shade. This remarkable exchange, a testament to the cooperative spirit in nature, ensures that even trees in the shadows can thrive.

But it’s not just about nutrient exchange. Mycorrhizal networks also allow for the transmission of warning signals. When one plant is attacked by pests or disease, it can send signals through the network that alert other plants in the network to ramp up their defense mechanisms.

Mycorrhizal networks play a crucial role in plant survival, especially in nutrient-poor environments, and contribute to the overall health and resilience of plant communities.



Understanding plant communication opens up new possibilities for sustainable agriculture and forest management. By working with these natural systems, we can increase crop yields and resilience without relying on chemical inputs.

So plants may not communicate in the same way we do, but their methods of interaction are complex and sophisticated. By studying these, not only do we gain insight into a fascinating aspect of natural science, but we also learn to appreciate the intricate and interconnected nature of life on Earth.

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