“Plants as Aliens”, by Brock Haussamen

Plants are so familiar to us that we don’t see them very well. We look at them and think about them according mostly to how we use them—for food and beauty. To shift our perspective, I’ll look at plants as if they were strangers from another planet, as plant-aliens. Making them weirder may make them more vivid.

  • Plant-aliens don’t eat anything. They make their own food. For that purpose they anchor themselves to a water source and grow their own solar panels.
  • Plant-aliens follow a clock that is geared only to the sun light and the seasons. Small plants push out leaves and flowers quickly in early spring so that they can catch maximum sunlight before the slower growing leaves on the trees above them plunge them into shade.
  • Unlike the many animals that cooperate so they can secure food, plant-alien food makers have no reason to be social. They are competitive egomaniacs. They don’t react to other plants except to get around them if necessary so they can get to the sun.1-hydnora-africana-thumb-330x247-69100
  • Many plant-aliens are giants. They tower over all animals.
  • Through their sophisticated plumbing and evaporation mechanisms, tree-aliens pull water up long distances without using any kind of pump. Animals, on the other hand, must all use small pumps just to keep fluids moving inside their fragile bodies.
  • Plant-aliens survive sub-freezing temperatures that last for weeks or months. They get as cold as the frozen earth around them. Animals can’t survive if they get that cold; hibernating animals cling to a slow metabolism that keeps them above freezing.

  • One process that plant-aliens do share with animals is sexual reproduction. Their equipment for doing so, however, is a little kinky. An individual plant-alien may contain flowers with structures that are male or female or both or that change from one to the other.
  • Plant-aliens breathe in carbon and exhale oxygen. Animals do the reverse.
  • Plants-aliens have successfully colonized the earth. They occupy the coldest and hottest zones, they outnumber animals and they are both larger and smaller than we are. And we animals are at their mercy for our food and oxygen.*

Plants are so different from us and so impressive that it’s actually not too difficult to portray them as aliens. And after that exercise, it’s pleasant to see them again as our comfortable companions and allies. I wonder if they feel the same way about us.

*With appreciation for David Attenborough’s The Private Life of Plants (1995)

Original post

Brock Haussamen

I live in New Jersey and taught English at a community college for nearly four decades. I am married and have a daughter, a grandson, and step-children here in the state.

head shot BHI retired from teaching in 2006 in part to move on from teaching and partly to try to help reduce poverty locally and through global advocacy. For the past few years, I’ve served as a financial coach for low-income families.

I’ve also been thinking about the questions that catch up with most of us sooner or later: What is my purpose? How will I face death? What do I believe in? I’ve always liked and trusted the descriptions from science of how living things work and how we all evolved. But I could not put those descriptions together with my questions. Gradually, I’ve been coming to see how the history of life over 3.8 billion years stands inside and throughout my being and the being of others.

In my blog at threepointeightbillionyears.com, I’ve been exploring the variety of ways in which our experience is anchored not just in our evolution from primates but in the much longer lifespan of life itself.

See Brock Haussamen’s Posts

3 Comments on ““Plants as Aliens”, by Brock Haussamen

  1. A slight but significant correction to one of your points: colonies of certain tree and fungus types do communicate, chemically, notifying one another about soil and water conditions and even sharing nutrients. While the level of intent or consciousness involved could be debated, it isn’t true that plants “don’t react to other plants” just to compete. We should be careful not to discount phenomena just because they don’t fit our familiar modality (e.g. social communication = air vibrations between discrete organisms).


    • From a recent article I read in The New Yorker, “The Intelligent Plant”:

      “Roots can tell whether nearby roots are self or other and, if other, kin or stranger. Normally, plants compete for root space with strangers, but, when researchers put four closely related Great Lakes sea-rocket plants (Cakile edentula) in the same pot, the plants restrained their usual competitive behaviors and shared resources. …

      ” the more closely related the plants the more likely they are to respond to the chemical signal, suggesting that plants may display a form of kin recognition. Helping out your relatives is a good way to improve the odds that your genes will survive.”


  2. Your point is a good one and the BBC piece is very informative. I’ve overstated the point, it seems, and I’ll look into this more.

    By the way, there is a haunting sci-fi story by Ursula LeGuin called “Vaster than Empires and More Slow” about a survey crew that lands on a planet with only trees and no animals on it. Scary things start to happen to the crew, and the source seems to be the trees’ communicated fear at the intrusion of beings that can move.


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