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The basic idea of communication is transfer of information from one individual to another. Communication research has mainly focused on animals, as their signal-mediated interactions frequently involves auditory or visual displays of body parts which readily attract attention. Plant communication on the other hand has been a controversial topic, but in recent times it has gained more attention. Plant communication mechanisms takes various forms, some of them are readily accepted by many researchers like communication through chemicals, contact and light while others are still questioned. Many studies have proven that plants are highly sensitive organisms capable of interacting and facilitating each other by actively gaining information from their surrounding environment. Plants modify their behavior according to the processing and evaluation of information about their neighbors above as well as below ground, and also about the resources available in their surroundings. Similar to animal social systems, plants facilitate kin selection process by favoring their relatives over strangers by using the information to recognize and prevent competition.
Plants use volatile organic compounds (VOCs) as a warning signal for other plants against herbivores. Such air-borne communication allows the undamaged neighboring plants to respond by increasing their defense mechanisms. Plants are able to detect changes in the levels of different wavelengths in the sunlight to become aware of future competition in their proximity. This is a beneficial response as plants are unable to invest in growth and defense simultaneously due to the presence of limited resources. This allows the plant to change their morphology and behavior accordingly for future growth before the resources become limited.
Plant communities are shaped by competition as well as facilitative or positive interactions. Plant facilitate each other by improving growth, nitrogen fixation, nurse cropping, controlling pests or attracting beneficial organisms such as insects or mycorrhizae. The mechanisms involved in the facilitative interactions mainly focus on effects of light and shade, chemical signals, physical proximity and contact. For example, shade from perennial canopies protects young seedlings and smaller species from extreme temperatures, excessive water loss and also provide desirable soil texture and chemistry. Recent research provides many examples of plant association with benefactor species for protection either by visual or auditory concealment, which protects them from predation by herbivores.
In a recent study by Gagliano et al., it was shown that plants are able to detect and affect their neighbors by pathways other than light, chemicals or physical contact. The study used seeds of chili plant Capsicum annuum and measured their germination rates in the presence of an adult chili plant and an adult fennel plant. Florence fennel plant (Foeniculum vulgare) is considered a bad neighbor as it inhibits the germination of chili seeds by emitting volatile chemicals. It was observed that the germination rates of chili seeds were higher in the presence of fennel plant with its signals partially or totally blocked.
In another study by Gagliano et al., germination rates of chili seeds in the presence of a good neighbor, Basil plant (Ocimum basilicum) were measured. The basil plant positively facilitates the chili seeds by increasing its germination rates as it produces large number of volatile compounds that act as natural insecticides and kill competitive weeds. Gardeners are commonly seen growing basil plants with chili plants as it keeps the soil moist and act as organic living mulch. It was observed that basil plant increases the rate of chili seeds germination when allowed open contact between the two but also when the basil plant was placed inside a sealed box. This shows that there are other signal modalities yet to be identified apart from chemical signals.
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