This is the time of year when I keep a close eye on our tomato plants. But I didn’t know until now that the tomato plants may be keeping an eye on me.
Daniel Chamovitz, author of the book “What a Plant Knows,” makes a convincing case for the premise that plants can see. Maybe that sounds like still another writer with insane ideas stretched into a theory. But Chamovitz makes persuasive point.
“A plant sees what we see,” he says. “A plant sees light... So if you take someone who’s completely blind and by surgery in some way giving them a camera, allow them to see just shadows, would we see that that person now has rudimentary sight?”
Bear in mind, this is a time of year when home tomato growers are going after bragging rights for the first ripe tomato in the neighborhood. My wife and I are among the contenders here on the bank of the Snake River less than a mile from the lowest and therefore warmest spot in Idaho.
We normally see the first flush of ripening a little before or after July 1. And if you are first to see your tomatoes blush, you will be blushing with pride, gnawing the first fruit with a celebratory drizzle of tomato juice dripping off your chin.
So you bet your boots we are checking our tomatoes night and day right now, looking to see the magic moment of first pink. However, it turns out that the tomatoes are also watching us because Chamovitz contends they can see.
Plants do tend to point their blooms toward the sun. They can tell a shadow from the sun, just as an otherwise sightless person can feel the warm light of the sun beaming down on his face, which is another way of detecting a presence, another way of seeing.
In that vein, we can see with the back of our head. When a robin lands on the back of your head, seeking hair for its nest, and digs its toes into the turf on your noggin, you know it. Sometimes we “see,” not with eyes but with the scalp and bird feet.
Similarly, if you are bringing in a basket of ripe tomatoes, drop one without realizing it and then unexpectedly sit on it, you can see without using eyes that you have just sat on a tomato.
These early days of summer are a time when tomato gardeners visit the plants daily looking for that first glow of pink. But tomato plants are slow to let their fruit shine because they know we will eat them. The mother plants see my shadow each morning moving between the plants and the summer sun. So they delay.
We once had a cruel neighbor who took advantage of my spring quest for the first ripe tomato. I began searching the plants for that prize one morning when a glint of red caught my eye. I rushed to that plant and found a store-bought cherry tomato, attached to the plant by a paper clip. Our neighbor Ozzie was up to his old tricks.
How ignominious. Not only did the false ripening ruin the fun of my quest for the first ripe tomato but for several days Ozzie would hoot with laughter every time he saw me.
I have a feeling this may be the year when our tomatoes are the first in all of Idaho to ripen. If plants can see, they can hear. So I spend each morning, sweet-talking tomato plants, praising the sensuous beauty of their fruit. Together we will triumph. This year, the tomatoes and the gardener will see eye to eye.Bill Hall can be contacted at email@example.com or at 1012 Prospect Ave., Lewiston, ID 83501