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New art exhibition revisits human-plant evolutionary relational traits

In a classic case of art imitating life, a new exhibition called 'Plant Babies' admirably casts the spotlight on the evolutionary relational traits shared by humans and plants. Plus we unpack 3 scientific findings that not only prove that plants and humans are similar in more ways than ever imagined; we also bring you the answer to the burning question as to whether 'can plants reproduce sexually?'

First, let’s take a look into the first solo exhibition of its kind by acclaimed South African artist and communications specialist Lauren Shantall, ‘Plant Babies’, which offers captivating insights on plant behavior, and essentially their evolutionary link with humans, something which has captured the fascinating frontiers of science tracing back to the 1800s. What with the never-ending questions as to whether can plants sexuality reproduce or even talk about sex, which we will unpack later in the article (and share podcast link), and more bizarre, how healthy and attractive flowers must be to charm their opposite counterparts for reproductive purposes.

Inspiration behind ‘Plant Babies’

Featuring a series of plant portraits in acrylics, this intriguing exhibition – on until March 9 at The Yard gallery space, bordering Cape Town’s iconic Table Mountain – challenges the notion that plants are sentient due their lack of ability to move, have no emotions and that they’re less important than people. It proves once again, as scientific studies have shown many a times, that our existence matter of factly, is significantly linked with plants. That just like both humans and animals, plants respond to their environments and, most likely, interact with humans on the level of energetic transfer.

The paintings, as Shantall (who runs the award-winning communications agency Scout PR & Social Media) explained, borrow greatly from the rise of ‘organicism’ as a lifestyle philosophy – which denotes that all living organisms are not dormant ‘things’ but rather dynamic components of interconnected systems. This is manifested through the pervasive plant movement in today’s modern society; notably the introduction of botanical styling into our homes, not to mention those Instagram’s houseplant hoarders as their leafy photos flash in our feeds, and the ever-so popular social media masterclasses on how to style our houseplants.

“In this societal shift, we can read so many things: there’s reverence for nature, heightened awareness of greening and green issues, the place for plant therapy as an antidote to digital disconnection, and the need to express care and nurture growth and positivity,” Shantall said.

Some semi-realistic, others more abstract, the paintings vary in the way they depict their leafy subjects, but all are linked by highly expressive use of colour. She added: “In these paintings, colour is a device that denotes joy, and marks that imperceptible surge of love that occurs when the subtle connections between living things are recognised and honoured.”

On in the The Yard Cape Town gallery space until March 9 (2023), the itriguing characteristics between humans and plants have inspired the making of ‘Plant Babies’, an exhibition by Durban-born, artist Lauren Shantall.

Unpacking the revolutionary link between plants and humans. Can plants reproduce sexually? What researchers say

As evidence for co-evolution of plants and humans continues to be accumulated and tested, Shantall paintings depict the above mentioned scenarios and more. Below, is a look at three past major researches, which show that plants and humans are indeed similar in more ways than ever imagined.

Just like humans, plants can speak to each other 

The most common communication between all living things, humans and animals alike, is the exchange of information between different groups. Just like humans, animals constantly communicate with each other as they move around their habitats, be it through gestures, facial expressions, body gestures – think of the loud roar of lions to announce their presence to others or attract a mate, and dogs barking to convey warning or a welcome, and birds singing to warn about danger, food and group movements, while man’s closest cousins chimpanzees can go as far as learning sign language. In contrast, plants are often regarded as unmoving organisms (static) that are incapable of such level of communication.

However, one of the first scientists who sought to challenge this notion was none other than Charles Darwin. In the 1880s, Darwin conducted a series of experiments (published by Researchgate) on the roots of plants, which showed that root tips sense and respond to stimuli such as light, gravity, chemicals, and sound. These movements function as signals to activate processes such as growth, directional movement, and release of special gases. Animal and human brains do similar things, so the study argues the root tip could function as the plant’s ‘brain’. Below is their explanation:

“It is hardly an exaggeration to say that the tip of the radicle [a young root]… having the power of directing the movements of the adjoining parts, acts like the brain…; receiving impressions from the sense organs, and directing the several movements.”

Protein study shows genetic basis of common trait in humans and plants

A previous study by Purdue University – published in Plant Physiology – revealed how human protein, aminopeptidase M1 protein, or APM1, important in cancer development, was able to revive dying plants, showing an evolutionary link between plants and humans. APM1 is critical for root development in plants. Arabidopsis plants lacking the protein will die, but can be rescued if the protein is restored.

The same can be observed in individuals that lack this compound as they will most certainly die, but they can be revived if the appropriate amount is injected in them. Humans with altered function of this equivalent proteins often have leukemia or other cancers.

Like humans, plants can sense their surroundings … and yes sex is top of the agenda to them too!

The topic of plant intelligence has been making leading news in science publications and major news broadcasters for years, as seen via a series of BBC CrowdScience articles and podcasts detailing a host of expert opinions on topics such as plant cognition (including an investigation into whether if plants can reproduce sexually or even talk about sex), as well as evidence of the existence of the so-called ‘Wood Wide Web’ (2019), a complex underground web of roots, fungi and bacteria right under out feet connecting trees and plants to one another ans helps them among others absorb nutrients from the soil and can even receive warnings of a possible attack.

Take a listen to BBC CrowdScience investigation here, if you ever wonder why bees hop from one flower to another, and how they (flowers) in turn should ‘attractively’ look to easily attract their opposite counterparts for reproductive purpose.

More valuable insights into the fascinating world of human-plant interconnectedness involves the experiences of farmers in Makushi communities of Amazonian Guyana, documented in 2011 and 2014 by lecturer in Social Anthropology of the Environment at University College London, Dr Lewis Daly, as per this article published by American Anthropological Association (AAA). 

Dr Daly makes note of how farmers in these communities would draw parallels between the worldly sensitivities of plants and the kinetic movements of human bodies, and referenced, in particular, the swaying of cassava leaves in the wind (a’situn), which is often described as the plants ‘waving’. “People speak, sing, and recite spells to their crops. Plants, too, speak back – often via the medium of dreams (we’ne’) or shamanic visions,” he goes on to say.

In the same way that some traditional African spiritualists and healers such as the karanga/Shona religion mainly in Zimbabwe and other parts of South Africa have documented (per this PubMed study) how they receive divine guidance from indegenous plants and trees in order to treat treat illnesses and diseases, Makushi gardeners view their cassava crops as consanguineal kin (close relatives), the article further pointed out. “When Aunty Elsa, an elder from my host community of Yupukari, would routinely describe her cassava crops as her ‘children’ (more yamĂ®), she was not resorting to mere metaphor; rather, for Elsa, humans and plants are embroiled in bona-fide cross-species relationships of relatedness. The relations between plant-children and their human parents are forged and reproduced via the nurturing acts of horticulture.”

Another noteworthy research comes from a renowned professor from the University of Sydney in Australia, Dr Monica Gagliano, whose work in the field of plant behavior and signaling has broken boundaries. She previously published a number of studies that support the view that plants are, to some extent, intelligent. She notes that plants can learn behaviors and remember them. Her experiments also argues that plants can ‘hear’ running water and even produce clicking noises to try to communicate.

Plants-humans coevolution findings; bringing cutting-edge scientific developments to broader audience

Scientic publications such as these, along with thought-provoking art concepts in the form of ‘Plant Babies‘, are a step in the right direction towards helping bring cutting-edge, science-inspired developments to a broader audience, and serving to revolutionise public understandings of botanical life-ways in the process.

At NOWinSA, we were particularly inspired and fascinated by Darwin’s work – and other researchers – not only in showcasing the plants closeness to humans, but to the study of protein’s function (the aminopeptidase M1 protein) in cancer development, which is something we have covered broadly as part of EmpowerSA cancer awareness series journals. Simply put, it means it may now be possible to conduct studies with plants instead of animals, offering researchers more control and options.

By and large, understanding how similar scientific researchers work in plants will not only help scientists and society understand how they affect humans, but also bear some noteworthy advances in how cancer development as a whole is understood.

Tankiso Komane
Tankiso Komane
A Tshwane University of Technology journalism graduate, Tankiso Komane has a vast experience in print & broadcast media business and has worked for some of the country’s biggest daily newspapers, including The Sowetan, The Citizen, The Times, and The New Age. Through her varied work as a journalist, notably as a copywriter for SABC1 (On-Air promotions) and as a publicist for Onyx Communications, she has developed an in-depth understanding of the nature of the media business and how to use it for the purpose of exposure. Her expertise in journalism across various disciplines, coupled with a good reputation, has laid the foundation of a new kind "trust in Journalism" as the media ecosystem continues to digitally evolve.
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