Motile and intelligent plants have been the subject of science fiction for decades now. Although its more “creature feature” than sci fi, I recall as a young child in the 1970’s, watching the “Tabonga” walking-tree creature in the 1957 film, From Hell it Came. Many years later I nearly died laughing when I was reading Leonard Maltin’s deadpan review of this film: “As walking-tree movies go, this is at the top of the list.” And you know, though I am not accusing anyone of idea stealing, I think Guardians of the Galaxy character, Groot, owes a bit of his look to the Tabonga. A bit over a decade later we were entertained with the Lost in Space episode, “The Great Vegetable Rebellion.” On the face of it, the plot doesn’t seem too bad (though the general idea has some similarities to Gerry Anderson’s Fireball XL5 episode “The Plant Man from Space” from 1962): The Robinson’s (and Don, Smith, Robot) end up on an overgrown planet. They cut through brush as they walk around, not realizing that they are hurting sentient creatures. Tybo, the leader of the plant creatures, seeks to punish the Robinsons. Unfortunately, when Stanley Adams steps onto the scene in a giant carrot suit, the whole effort becomes a little too silly, even by Lost in Space standards. Then, in one of the less serious episodes of the relatively more serious show, Space: 1999, Commander Koenig and Maya run into the same troubles that the Robinson’s did in accidentally killing off intelligent plants, and are given a summary judgement (by talking trees) and given the sentence of fighting off other criminal creatures in a death match to see who would win their freedom (think “Great Vegetable Rebellion” meets Star Trek: The Original Series episode “Arena.”)
But thankfully, some more serious efforts developed with time. Ursala LeGuin’s short story “Vaster than Empires and More Slow” features a planet that has a network of intelligent plant life (surely one of the direct inspirations for Pandora in the film Avatar).
Now, back to Groot. Can we really have a walking and talking tree creature? Here on Earth, there would be some problems. As far as we know, plants do not consist of very specialized cells, that is, the kind needed for nerves and the brain (or any other specialized organ). So, plants as we know them to be, don’t seem capable of , say, thought. Also, there would likely be problems with such a creature getting enough energy from photosynthesis (though Groot seems to be able to absorb plant materials as food). But Groot isn’t from Earth, and perhaps plant life evolved in different ways on different worlds, particularly perhaps allowing for specialized plant cells acting in a brain-like fashion. Given our current possibility of detecting atmospheres of exoplanets, we may only be a decade away from discovering evidence of plant-life on other worlds. That will be our first step in seeing how extra-terrestrial plants might differ from the Earth bound varieties.
If you want to read more, don’t forget to take a look at my book The Physics and Astronomy in Science Fiction available from the publisher (McFarland) and many electronic book sellers.