Section 13 - Vegetable Animationby@erasmusdarwin

Section 13 - Vegetable Animation

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The fibres of the vegetable world, as well as those of the animal, are excitable into a variety of motion by irritations of external objects. This appears particularly in the mimosa or sensitive plant, whose leaves contract on the slightest injury; the dionæa muscipula, which was lately brought over from the marshes of America, presents us with another curious instance of vegetable irritability; its leaves are armed with spines on their upper edge, and are spread on the ground around the stem; when an insect creeps on any of them in its passage to the flower or seed, the leaf shuts up like a steel rat-trap, and destroys its enemy. See Botanic Garden, Part II. note on Silene.
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Zoonomia, Vol. I Or, the Laws of Organic Life by Erasmus Darwin is part of HackerNoon’s Book Blog Post series. You can jump to any chapter in this book here: [LINK TO TABLE OF LINK]. Section XIII - Of Vegetable Animation


I1. The fibres of the vegetable world, as well as those of the animal, are excitable into a variety of motion by irritations of external objects. This appears particularly in the mimosa or sensitive plant, whose leaves contract on the slightest injury; the dionæa muscipula, which was lately brought over from the marshes of America, presents us with another curious instance of vegetable irritability; its leaves are armed with spines on their upper edge, and are spread on the ground around the stem; when an insect creeps on any of them in its passage to the flower or seed, the leaf shuts up like a steel rat-trap, and destroys its enemy. See Botanic Garden, Part II. note on Silene.

The various secretions of vegetables, as of odour, fruit, gum, resin, wax, honey, seem brought about in the same manner as in the glands of animals; the tasteless moisture of the earth is converted by the hop-plant into a bitter juice; as by the caterpillar in the nut-shell the sweet kernel is converted into a bitter powder. While the power of absorption in the roots and barks of vegetables is excited into action by the fluids applied to their mouths like the lacteals and lymphatics of animals.

2. The individuals of the vegetable world may be considered as inferior or less perfect animals; a tree is a congeries of many living buds, and in this respect resembles the branches of coralline, which are a congeries of a multitude of animals. Each of these buds of a tree has its proper leaves or petals for lungs, produces its viviparous or its oviparous offspring in buds or seeds; has its own roots, which extending down the stem of the tree are interwoven with the roots of the other buds, and form the bark, which is the only living part of the stem, is annually renewed, and is superinduced upon the former bark, which then dies, and with its stagnated juices gradually hardening into wood forms the concentric circles, which we see in blocks of timber.

The following circumstances evince the individuality of the buds of trees. First, there are many trees, whose whole internal wood is perished, and yet the branches are vegete and healthy. Secondly, the fibres of the barks of trees are chiefly longitudinal, resembling roots, as is beautifully seen in those prepared barks, that were lately brought from Otaheita. Thirdly, in horizontal wounds of the bark of trees, the fibres of the upper lip are always elongated downwards like roots, but those of the lower lip do not approach to meet them. Fourthly, if you wrap wet moss round any joint of a vine, or cover it with moist earth, roots will shoot out from it. Fifthly, by the inoculation or engrafting of trees many fruits are produced from one stem. Sixthly, a new tree is produced from a branch plucked from an old one, and set in the ground. Whence it appears that the buds of deciduous trees are so many annual plants, that the bark is a contexture of the roots of each individual bud; and that the internal wood is of no other use but to support them in the air, and that thus they resemble the animal world in their individuality.

The irritability of plants, like that of animals, appears liable to be increased or decreased by habit; for those trees or shrubs, which are brought from a colder climate to a warmer, put out their leaves and blossoms a fortnight sooner than the indigenous ones.

Professor Kalm, in his Travels in New York, observes that the apple-trees brought from England blossom a fortnight sooner than the native ones. In our country the shrubs, that are brought a degree or two from the north, are observed to flourish better than those, which come from the south. The Siberian barley and cabbage are said to grow larger in this climate than the similar more southern vegetables. And our hoards of roots, as of potatoes and onions, germinate with less heat in spring, after they have been accustomed to the winter's cold, than in autumn after the summer's heat.

II. The stamens and pistils of flowers shew evident marks of sensibility, not only from many of the stamens and some pistils approaching towards each other at the season of impregnation, but from many of them closing their petals and calyxes during the cold parts of the day. For this cannot be ascribed to irritation, because cold means a defect of the stimulus of heat; but as the want of accustomed stimuli produces pain, as in coldness, hunger, and thirst of animals, these motions of vegetables in closing up their flowers must be ascribed to the disgreeable sensation, and not to the irritation of cold. Others close up their leaves during darkness, which, like the former, cannot be owing to irritation, as the irritating material is withdrawn.

The approach of the anthers in many flowers to the stigmas, and of the pistils of some flowers to the anthers, must be ascribed to the passion of love, and hence belongs to sensation, not to irritation.

III. That the vegetable world possesses some degree of voluntary powers, appears from their necessity to sleep, which we have shewn in Sect. XVIII. to consist in the temporary abolition of voluntary power. This voluntary power seems to be exerted in the circular movement of the tendrils of vines, and other climbing vegetables; or in the efforts to turn the upper surface of their leaves, or their flowers to the light.

IV. The associations of fibrous motions are observable in the vegetable world, as well as in the animal. The divisions of the leaves of the sensitive plant have been accustomed to contract at the same time from the absence of light; hence if by any other circumstance, as a slight stroke or injury, one division is irritated into contraction, the neighbouring ones contract also, from their motions being associated with those of the irritated part. So the various stamina of the class of syngenesia have been accustomed to contract together in the evening, and thence if you stimulate one of them with a pin, according to the experiment of M. Colvolo, they all contract from their acquired associations.

To evince that the collapsing of the sensitive plant is not owing to any mechanical vibrations propagated along the whole branch, when a single leaf is struck with the finger, a leaf of it was slit with sharp scissors, and some seconds of time passed before the plant seemed sensible of the injury; and then the whole branch collapsed as far as the principal stem: this experiment was repeated several times with the least possible impulse to the plant.

V1. For the numerous circumstances in which vegetable buds are analogous to animals, the reader is referred to the additional notes at the end of the Botanic Garden, Part I. It is there shewn, that the roots of vegetables resemble the lacteal system of animals; the sap-vessels in the early spring, before their leaves expand, are analogous to the placental vessels of the fœtus; that the leaves of land-plants resemble lungs, and those of aquatic plants the gills of fish; that there are other systems of vessels resembling the vena portarum of quadrupeds, or the aorta of fish; that the digestive power of vegetables is similar to that of animals converting the fluids, which they absorb, into sugar; that their seeds resemble the eggs of animals, and their buds and bulbs their viviparous offspring. And, lastly, that the anthers and stigmas are real animals, attached indeed to their parent tree like polypi or coral insects, but capable of spontaneous motion; that they are affected with the passion of love, and furnished with powers of reproducing their species, and are fed with honey like the moths and butterflies, which plunder their nectaries. See Botanic Garden, Part I. add. note XXXIX.

The male flowers of vallisneria approach still nearer to apparent animality, as they detach themselves from the parent plant, and float on the surface of the water to the female ones. Botanic Garden, Part II. Art. Vallisneria. Other flowers of the classes of monecia and diecia, and polygamia, discharge the fecundating farina, which floating in the air is carried to the stigma of the female flowers, and that at considerable distances. Can this be effected by any specific attraction? or, like the diffusion of the odorous particles of flowers, is it left to the currents of winds, and the accidental miscarriages of it counteracted by the quantity of its production?

2. This leads us to a curious enquiry, whether vegetables have ideas of external things? As all our ideas are originally received by our senses, the question may be changed to, whether vegetables possess any organs of sense? Certain it is, that they possess a sense of heat and cold, another of moisture and dryness, and another of light and darkness; for they close their petals occasionally from the presence of cold, moisture, or darkness. And it has been already shewn, that these actions cannot be performed simply from irritation, because cold and darkness are negative quantities, and on that account sensation or volition are implied, and in consequence a sensorium or union of their nerves. So when we go into the light, we contract the iris; not from any stimulus of the light on the fine muscles of the iris, but from its motions being associated with the sensation of too much light on the retina: which could not take place without a sensorium or center of union of the nerves of the iris with those of vision. See Botanic Garden, Part I. Canto 3. l. 440. note.

Besides these organs of sense, which distinguish cold, moisture, and darkness, the leaves of mimosa, and of dionæa, and of drosera, and the stamens of many flowers, as of the berbery, and the numerous class of syngenesia, are sensible to mechanic impact, that is, they possess a sense of touch, as well as a common sensorium; by the medium of which their muscles are excited into action. Lastly, in many flowers the anthers, when mature, approach the stigma, in others the female organ approaches to the male. In a plant of collinsonia, a branch of which is now before me, the two yellow stamens are about three eights of an inch high, and diverge from each other, at an angle of about fifteen degrees, the purple style is half an inch high, and in some flowers is now applied to the stamen on the right hand, and in others to that of the left; and will, I suppose, change place to-morrow in those, where the anthers have not yet effused their powder.

I ask, by what means are the anthers in many flowers, and stigmas in other flowers, directed to find their paramours? How do either of them know, that the other exists in their vicinity? Is this curious kind of storge produced by mechanic attraction, or by the sensation of love? The latter opinion is supported by the strongest analogy, because a reproduction of the species is the consequence; and then another organ of sense must be wanted to direct these vegetable amourettes to find each other, one probably analogous to our sense of smell, which in the animal world directs the new-born infant to its source of nourishment, and they may thus possess a faculty of perceiving as well as of producing odours.

Thus, besides a kind of taste at the extremities of their roots, similar to that of the extremities of our lacteal vessels, for the purpose of selecting their proper food: and besides different kinds of irritability residing in the various glands, which separate honey, wax, resin, and other juices from their blood; vegetable life seems to possess an organ of sense to distinguish the variations of heat, another to distinguish the varying degrees of moisture, another of light, another of touch, and probably another analogous to our sense of smell. To these must be added the indubitable evidence of their passion of love, and I think we may truly conclude, that they are furnished with a common sensorium belonging to each bud and that they must occasionally repeat those perceptions either in their dreams or waking hours, and consequently possess ideas of so many of the properties of the external world, and of their own existence.

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Darwin, Erasmus, 2005. Zoonomia, Vol. Or, the Laws of Organic Life. Urbana, Illinois: Project Gutenberg. Retrieved May 2022 from

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