Beans locate their poles by echolocation, the mimosa shrub has a memory-span greater than that of a bee … New discoveries in botany support an older idea of plants as individuals – active agents in their own life stories

When the much-missed neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote that “there is nothing alive which is not individual”, he meant nothing which is alive. Sacks was promiscuously biophilic, and the rapt personal engagement he felt with his patients embraced most of the rest of creation too – cephalopods, spiders, Oaxacan ferns, and the hunched and scaly survivors of the Jurassic forests he had seen at Kew Gardens as a child. The cycads, especially, enthralled him as relics of the first experiments plants had made in using insects for fertilisation.

In the 1990s, Sacks was investigating a rare form of colour blindness in the Pacific islands, caused possibly by eating flour made from cycad seeds. In one passage in his book The Island of the Colourblind, the Romantic botanist displaces the physician with a job to do. He sits on a beach under the cycads, watching fiddler crabs scissoring the kernels from the giant seeds, and notices a single seed, whipped up by the surf and starting to float out to sea. He ponders how its family – a group of highly variable, fire-resistant, suckering species that developed ways of fixing atmospheric nitrogen 100m years before beans did – had outlived the dinosaurs, and whether this individual seed, endowed with who-knows-what genetic quirks, might make landfall on a distant island, find a partner and begin the evolution of a new species. Life goes on and forward, but often dips into its back catalogue.

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Source: Guardian Environment