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Doc shows plants can turn over a new leaf

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You know how these nature-documentary programs go -- ruthless inter-species competition, predatory behaviour, fiercely protective parents, complex social interactions and the endless life-and-death struggle.

Oh, but there's one other thing: this film is about plants, not animals.

As it turns out, there's a lot more going on in leaves, flowers, stems and roots than meets the eye (and nose). If the scientists in the locally produced documentary Smarty Plants are to be believed, plants might actually have complex lives and interconnected behaviours that can reasonably be compared to those of animals.

"If you talk to a lay person about plant behaviour, they'll just think you're crazy," University of Alberta plant ecologist Dr. James Cahill says in Smarty Plants, which airs tonight at 8 on CBC's The Nature of Things. "And if you talk to a scientist about plant behaviour, they'll think you're crazy and wrong."

But Cahill is part of a small segment of the scientific community that has dedicated years of study to plant behaviour, and he and his cohorts have accumulated a fascinating body of evidence that suggests plants are capable of some pretty amazing things.

Unfortunately, none of them are visible to the naked eye. But when you observe them over time and capture their movements with time-lapse photography, a very different picture emerges

The film, produced by Merit Motion Pictures and written and directed by Erna Buffie, follows Cahill as he seeks proof of repeated and apparently logical behaviour by plants -- which he contends, just like animals, spend their entire existence in a constant hunt for food.

As evidence, he presents the lowly dodder vine, a parasitic organism that finds its nourishment by wrapping itself around other plants and feeding on their sap. In a laboratory experiment, Cahill demonstrates that the dodder vine actually makes informed choices about the hosts it chooses, effectively "sniffing" the air until it finds an attractive victim.

And that's just the beginning of the Smarty Plants journey. Other segments examine the wild tobacco plant, a desert weed that actually has several different defence mechanisms it employs against insect predators -- ranging from poisoning its enemies with nicotine to emitting a scent that will attract other predators that feed on what's eating the tobacco plant.

The final portion of Smarty Plants ventures into the B.C. rainforest, where ecologist Suzanne Simard looks for proof that "mother" Douglas fir trees actually create a root-system nutrient network to feed and protect their offspring.

It's weirdly captivating stuff. And it'll make you think twice about what you're doing the first time you fire up your lawn mower this spring.

-- -- --

Keeping in Touch: When it was presented as a mid-winter sneak preview in January, Kiefer Sutherland's new Fox drama, Touch, presented an intriguingly complex storyline that couldn't possibly be more different from his last prime-time shoot-'em-up, 24.

In the new series, Sutherland plays a widowed single dad who's unable to connect with his 11-year-old autistic son, until a series of anything-but-random events makes it apparent that his boy's obsession with numbers actually reveals a deep understanding of the numerical sequences that connect everything and everyone in the universe.

It was a great hour of TV, but the lingering question was whether the multi-layered narrative and uplifting message of Touch could be sustained over the longer term.

Based on the series' second episode, which airs tonight at 8 on Fox and Global, the answer is decidedly yes. Tonight's return, titled 1+13, finds Martin Bohm (Sutherland) battling the authorities for custody of young Jake (David Mazouz) while following a trail of numerical clues that somehow involve a pawn-shop robbery, a lost dog, a distraught flight attendant and a Russian mobster collecting debts in New York City.

The way Touch's writers weave the various threads together is impressive, and the resolution shows that series creator Tim Kring (Heroes) is committed to telling stories that encourage at the same time they entertain.

It is, in a word, touching.

brad.oswald@freepress.mb.ca

TV REVIEW

The Nature of Things: Smarty Plants

Narrated by David Suzuki

Tonight at 8

CBC

31Ñ2 stars out of 5

Touch

Starring Kiefer Sutherland

Tonight at 8

Fox and Global

4 stars out of 5

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 22, 2012 C3

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