The Secret Life of Plants — part 1, Appendix

This article follows on from the first one in a series discussing the writings of Peter Tompkins and others like him on the subject of plants. There I made reference to the extraordinary behaviour of carnivorous plants:

  • “The sundew plant will grasp at a fly with infallible accuracy, moving in just the right direction towards where the prey is to be found. Some parasitical plants can recognize the slightest trace of the odour of their victim, and will overcome all obstacles to crawl in its direction”.
  • “Insect-devouring sundews pay no attention to pebbles, bits of metal, or other foreign substances placed on their leaves, but are quick to sense the nourishment to be derived from a piece of meat”¹.

This brief article contains some further material on that topic.


Carnivorous plants have also attracted the attention of Brian Inglis. In The Hidden Power² he discusses the work on plants of Joseph Sinel, who came to the conclusion that “things can be perceived without the use of any of the five senses”. Inglis thinks that there must be some kind of psi faculty at work (p17).

He asks, how is it that “the common insectivorous bog-plant sun-dew, whose sticky hairs ordinarily are upright, ready to seize any fly alighting on them, turns upside-down when insects are unavailable, as if seeking nourishment in the bog below”? Details of experiments follow, the conclusion being that the sun-dew has “a sense of direction; it could tell what is, or is not, edible, the leaves ignoring inedible substances put on the needle. To Sinel this, too, looked like ‘an incipient faculty of “clairvoyance”…’ ”(p 17–18).

Inglis continues: “The ability of the Venus fly-trap to snap shut when a fly is inside has attracted some attention from physiologists, puzzled by the plant’s ability to exert what resembles a powerful muscular reaction, such as closing one’s fist, with no muscles to account for it”.

As you would expect, conventional scientists attempted to come up with a materialist, reductionist explanation: “The need to offer a ‘natural’ explanation led to what the New Scientist, in a note on the subject in 1981, described as ‘the classic textbook model of rapid changes in motor cell turgor’, based on the fact that plant cells maintain their shape through ‘turgor’ — water pressure. The trap, according to the model, was closed simply by rapid jettisoning of water from the appropriate cells”.

This had sounded plausible, but a flaw in the argument was pointed out by Stephen Williams of Lebanon Valley College, Pennsylvania: “The major cells far from getting smaller as they jettisoned their load, actually increased in size”. He suggested electrical signalling as an alternative. This is possible, but Inglis asks the very reasonable question: “Even supposing this to be correct… on receipt of the signal, how is the trap closed?” (p18)

Inglis then says: “A number of orthodox commentators, looking at what has been discovered about insectivorous plants, have admitted that they are ‘not satisfactorily accommodated in the omnibus of evolutionary doctrine’… They are not accounted for by invoking psi, either; but at least psi would make them easier to explain” (p18).

If conventional science, and even psi cannot account for the behaviour of plants, do we have to turn to some kind of ‘supernatural’ explanation, a psychological level of plants, or even the existence of nature spirits?

I’ll discuss that question in the next article.


I hope you have enjoyed this article. I have written in the past about other topics, including spirituality, metaphysics, psychology, science, Christianity, politics, and astrology. All these articles are on Medium, but the simplest way to see a guide to them is to visit my website (click here and here).



1. The Secret Life of Plants, Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird, Allen Lane 1974, my copy Penguin 1975, p10 and p11

2. Jonathan Cape Ltd., 1986



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Graham Pemberton

Graham Pemberton


I am a singer/songwriter interested in spirituality, politics, psychology, science, and their interrelationships.