Sapient plants are commonly found in sci-fi. Examples include Triffids from "Day of the Triffids," the Green God from the Cthulhu mythos, or the Sapient Pearwood of "Discworld."

Sometimes they are stationary but sentient, other times they possess motility equal to that of any animal.

What was the first example of a plant possessing animal-like intelligence?

  • By 'animal' one presumes from the pictures above that it's human that is being referred to. Just as visitors from outer space will be little green humans. Plants are quite capable of having intelligence in their own right. Take the Bee Orchid for example. This plant needs a furry bee to best transfer its pollen but noticed that small insects crawled in past its anthers and stole the nectar. So it reasoned that if it made itself look like a Female Bee it would attract many admirers so not needing the nectar. To improve matters it also gave off a female bee Pheremone. Now that's intelligence.
    – user65192
    Apr 25, 2016 at 10:44
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    @Wysowl: No, it's not. This is a common misconception, and a bizarre one at that. That effect is due to natural selection. Natural selection is not "intelligent". It is a consequence of statistics. Apr 25, 2016 at 11:56
  • As far as I remember the Triffids in Day of the Triffids move like animals but their intelligence is never estimated to be equal to humans or aliens. Jan 29, 2017 at 22:41

2 Answers 2


The ancient legend of the mandrake tells that this plant with an anthropomorphic root screams until killing all who hear it when its root is dug up.

enter image description here


The first versions of this legend, from classic Antiquity (Josephus, circa 80 AD), only tell that the plant screams, but medieval depictions show the plant as humanoid, as you can see in the picture above, which is from XV century.

An earlier depiction of humanoid mandrakes can be seen in 7th century manuscript of Dioscurides ''De Materia Medica'.

enter image description here

  • 1
    Can you try dating this?
    – Adamant
    Apr 25, 2016 at 7:24
  • 20
    @Jonah I'm not sure dating a mandrake is actually a good idea.
    – user32390
    Apr 25, 2016 at 7:43
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    I'm not sure that a humanoid appearance and the ability to scream imply intelligence.
    – user14111
    Apr 25, 2016 at 7:44
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    I think that screaming implies an animal-like intelligence, at least.
    – Ginasius
    Apr 25, 2016 at 7:59
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    In particular, we have to find out whether it's older than the en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vegetable_Lamb_of_Tartary
    – b_jonas
    Apr 25, 2016 at 12:15

I'd argue this idea has existed longer than written history. Many cultures worshipped trees and other plants (as well as animals), and implied the existence of "tree spirits" or "forest spirits" that most definitely had intelligence, though it might have been "slower" than human (reflecting the slow, gradual growth of the tree itself).

This isn't surprising when you consider how humans interpret reality. To the human brain, the simplest possible explanation is always "human-like intelligence". Why does a lightning strike? Some super-human sent it down to punish me. Why is the forest dying? You see, the forest is a certain antropomorphic being that's suffering, and that's why its dying. Why are our crops growing slowly? The spirit of the land doesn't like us very much, we must appease it. That's what our brains are designed for - empathy. Understanding how other brains work is the main thing you do in any society, and since our brain is so supercharged on doing so, we tend to find intelligence where there is none - it just seems like such a simple explanation to our own brains :)

  • +1: Yes, this is old, like really, really old. The concept of the Green Man has formed a part of many (I hesisate to say all) proto-religions. Seeing spirtis that controlled the sea, the forrest, mountains etc, goes back a looooooooong way :) Apr 25, 2016 at 12:40
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    The hypothesis is that we are too smart for bare survival (hunting), esp. because smarts (better hunting) usually benefits the tribe more than the individual. However, social dynamics in a group benefits the individual's reproductive success; hence the hypothesis that our brains are a runaway selection process involving outsmarting other humans at social games, where you have to be smart enough to outsmart another human, not a mammoth. The result of that would be brains optimized for empathy, and using anthropomorphizing to model non-social issues. This is a just-so story (it may not be true).
    – Yakk
    Apr 25, 2016 at 15:43
  • @Yakk Yeah, that's the gist of it (within the expected comment-format simplifications :D). Of course, most of the time this actually helps the groups as well, not just the individiuals - not that evolution "cares" (antropomorphising again :P). Non-human social animals also show similar behaviours (and optimizations) - the closest seem to be primates (some more than others) who have complex political games with lies, promises and twists. Humans play the game on a lot higher level, though. But thinking about some studies, I actually know people who do a lot worse... :D
    – Luaan
    Apr 25, 2016 at 15:56

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