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The Botanist Daring to Ask: What If Plants Have Personalities?

The idea of plant intelligence is still controversial, but Rick Karban is already well beyond that.

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Illustration: Shuhua Xiong for Bloomberg Green

The Valentine ecological study area in Mammoth Lakes, Calif., is situated in the caldera of an ancient volcano 8,000 feet above sea level. There’s no fence to keep tourists out of the 156-acre reserve owned by University of California at Santa Barbara, just a sign warning that trespassing won’t be tolerated. Most wouldn’t even know where to look; the entrance is a perimeter of scraggly pine forest with no trail through it—unappealing, compared to the ski area practically next door.

But immediately beyond the hedge of trees, the land opens into a rise that, in July, is covered with frosty green sagebrush and glossy manzanita crowns. Giant Jeffreys pines, armored in scales of rust-orange, vanilla-scented bark, stand above the low plants. Corn lily, pale pink phlox, white rein orchid, mules ears, serviceberry, and orange tufts of semi-parasitic desert paintbrush emerge from the bone-dry, gravelly ground. Two deer, young bucks with nubs for antlers, leap away as I walk. So do grasshoppers. Above the ground-level drama rise the jagged tops of Sierra Nevada peaks, still smudged with snow in places, despite the July sun.