Sense and Sensitivity


Mimosa Pudica in centre pot keeping company with a fern

Imagine my surprise when weeding  around some pots, I touched what I thought was a weed (what is a weed anyway but a plant growing in the wrong place?)

And it recoiled!

Believe me, it actually pulled away from my touch. I looked closer. I touched another of the frond-like tiny branchlets. The same thing happened. I stroked it again and again; the leaves fell off leaving a bare stalk. Oh my gosh! What had I done? Annoyed the poor thing until it committed hara-kiri?

This was just too strange for words. I have kept carnivorous plants from time to time and watched fascinated as they closed over offerings of flies and bugs. But I had not encountered a plant so sensitive to touch that it closed as I watched.

Are plants sensate?

Daniel Chamovitz, biologist and author of What a Plant Knows: A Field Guide to The Senses, certainly thinks so. He says ‘not only are plants sensate (able to sense their surroundings and act upon the information), they are able to broadcast their responses to sensation to insects, to other plants and even to people.’ I’m thinking companion planting like planting marigolds near tomatoes to repel garden pests; or how rotten apples emit ethylene, signalling surrounding apples to ripen rapidly thus providing ‘an easily identifiable market for animals who then disperse the seeds.’ (ref). 

But back to my little ‘Sensitive plant’ which is one of its common names. Native to tropical America, it’s called Mimosa Pudica and is a classified weed in Queensland, although some people like to keep it as a house plant. Somehow it found its way into the pot plant prompting much curiosity from my grandies.

The Sensitive plant reacts to touch by folding up or shedding its leaves as a self defence mechanism to avoid being eaten, according to Tim Low. He explains how ‘the nutritious leaves recede from view, leaving behind prickly stems. Leaves droop by losing water from the base of the stalk. Potassium ions migrate across cell walls and the water follows. After the disturbance stops the leaves return to position slowly, taking up to an hour.’ Fascinating! It seems that the sensitive plant ‘can also learn to ignore actions that don’t matter, such as drips of water. It can even ‘remember’ to ignore drips it last felt a month ago.’

The wonderment of nature never fails to move me.

Beauty of whatever kind, in its supreme development, invariably excites the sensitive soul to tears. Edgar Allan Poe


The photos below show the process from open leaves to folded, which occurs in seconds.


Perhaps we, as sensate beings, are not so far removed from the plant world in this respect. We react to what we perceive, very often in response to what we ‘sense’ is a threat, physical or psychological; a self defence mechanism.

Of course the reverse is also true. This is where we use our ‘sense’, not always so common, to tell the difference.

Being called sensitive can sometimes infer weakness. I beg to differ. To be sensitive is to be deeply attuned, truly aware and profoundly connected to the challenge of being human.


“Although some say it is both a blessing and a curse to feel so deeply, I will take sensitivity over indifference every time.” 
― Charles F. Glassman


Thanks to Wikipedia commons for the feature image of Mimosa Pudica

Credit for other images to my daughter.


25 responses to “Sense and Sensitivity

  1. It’s decades since I heard about the sensitive plant as a real plant, and my grandmother and mother used to refer to people as a “sensitive plant”. (They meant it kindly.) Thanks for the memory. I have friends who hate cut flowers, out of empathy. The more we know about plants, the more sincerely we must thank them when we eat them…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. What a self-defence strategy! Rachel’s comment (above) brought to mind the term “a shrinking violet” which my grandmother and mother used. Violets are modest little plants, but they don’t shrink in the way this one does.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Such a sensible, sensitive plant – a true survivor. I liked your nod to carnivorous plants and think you will like my little verse tale, Carnivore Conundrum when I finally have it finished. I’m mentoring an art student and giving him all the time he needs for the illustrations. I find symbiotic relationships absolutely fascinating and have experienced a few of my own in my 68 years.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m looking forward to your verse tale Carnivore Cunundrum Clare. The plants have much in common. It’s as if we’re in the presence of some alien intelligence.
      The Web of Life philosophy I subscribe to has at its heart symbiotic relationships. It’s good of you to mentor in this way.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Mmm… I’m with you on the perception of the word ‘sensitive’. It is certainly not a weakness. If we’re not sensitive, we can’t interact properly with our fellow creatures, including other human beings.
    And – I had one of these plants, too. They quite startling even when one gets used to them… I always feel sorry for having touched them as they recoil!

    Liked by 2 people

  5. You’ve reminded me of an aunt who had a sensitive plant in the house when I was a small child. I was supposed to be rationed to one touch per visit, to avoid wearing it out, but I was often tempted to sneak back for another go!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Hi Robyn, Thanks for the references to Daniel Chamovitz and Tim Low. Even though I’ve always been more interested in art than in science, I’m hoping their books will reveal some kind of chemical interactions that caused that plant stem to recoil. Not that i wouldnt like it that plants perceive danger; I’m just curious why. (No, that’s philosophy. I should say, how).  Our local library has “What a Plant Knows,” so I’m starting there. Tim Low’s latest, “Where Song Began,” sounds fascinating too. So much to wonder at in our natural world! Also, like other commentors, I appreciate the connections you make with the world of literature.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you Albert! Our natural world is fascinating and I can’t get enough of it. Years ago, I read a book called The Secret Life of Plants by Peter Tompkins. Although controversial and very challenging in terms of the status quo, it expanded my appreciation of the plant world. I will order Tim Low’s latest book from the library. Thanks Albert


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