An interesting article on how plants were regarded by early buddhists:Borderline beings: plant possibilities in early Buddhism
Journal of the American Oriental Society, The , April-June, 2002 by Ellison Banks Findly
EXTRACT:THE QUESTION OF WHETHER PLANTS are considered living and sentient beings in Pali Buddhism is brought to the fore by early Buddhist teachings on non-violence.
In discussions of the Patimokkha, the Vinaya makes clear that monks and nuns are not to cut down trees (rukkha) in the course of repairing their lodgings, because in so doing they will cause injury to one-facultied living beings. (1) Likewise, they are not to cut down young palmyra palms to wear as shoes, and are also cautioned against trampling down crops and grasses as they walk among alms-donors during the rainy season, as they may injure one-facultied living beings. (2) This monastic prohibition is then echoed in the Majjhima Nikaya as a virtuous monk celebrates his practiced restraint from destroying seed- and vegetable-growth. (3)
If plants and seeds--including grasses, creepers, bushes, and trees--are, as one of the objects of the ethic of non-violence, not to be injured, then it would make sense that they would be included among those designated as living, sentient beings. And if they are designated as living, sentient beings, then they should, concomitantly, be a part of the samsaric world and in some way subject to the laws of kamma. The texts of the early Pali canon are, however, as Lambert Schmithausen has carefully shown, relatively silent about the place of plants in the scheme of samsaric life. While later Buddhist texts are clearer about plants being not counted as sentient beings, earlier texts have "no explicit statement declaring plants or even earth and water to be living, sentient beings," nor do they seem to have "an explicit... statement denying them the status of sentient beings." Thus, "plants... in Earliest Buddhism [are] a kind of borderline case." (4)
Pro-life prescriptions on plants in the Patimokkha refer, most likely, to prevailing social views rather than to those of the renunciants themselves. "This code' Schmithausen argues, "is not concerned with spiritual practice nor even with morality proper ... but, mainly, with regulating how monks and nuns had to behave in society." (5) Many local householders of the time still retain their old belief in plants as sentient beings, and, although they themselves cannot consistently practice an impractical standard like ahimsa, especially with regard to plants, they think it unfit for ascetics of the time to practice anything but plant ahimsa. The Patimokkha proscription on killing plants, then, is not "an element of moral, or ethically motivated, conduct in the strict sense but ... rather a matter of ascetic decorum." (6) Thus, Buddhist practice is influenced by renunciant desire to please the local people--or, as I have shown elsewhere, the donors to the Sangha (7)--by, on the one hand, practicing plant ahimsa themselves and, on the other, by allowing householder donors to freely use plants and plant products in their daily lives. This latter Buddhism does by, at first, being silent about plants as living things and, later, actively excluding them as objects of a non-violent ethic.
Schmithausen further suggest that "originally also the monks themselves, and even the Buddha, [may] still somehow [have] held the view that plants and seeds were living beings." Early on, however, there is a "shifting emphasis from the ahimsa aspect towards matters of ascetic decorum"--already evident in discussion of the Patimokkha rule--and the exclusion of plants from the ahimsa rule then becomes, more or less, standard practice. "My personal feeling," he concludes concerning early Buddhist monastic sentiment, is that plants "are certainly not sentient in the same way as men or so-called higher animals. But they may not be entirely insentient either, and they are certainly alive. We simply do not know what it means for a plant itself to live or to be injured or killed." (8)
Scroll down to April-June 2002 at this link:http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_go2081/