Listen To Your Plants

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Plants are beautiful and useful, but what if they’re much more than that? Lane Parker has this Perspective.

Spring is in full swing, and gardeners of all varieties are striving to help their plants thrive.

I remember hearing, many years ago, that plants grew better if you talked to them. The words didn’t matter; simply talking produced beneficial results. I also remember being skeptical.

Sure, plants send signals to people all the time. If a plant gets too hot or too cold, too wet or too dry, we know because it droops, turns brown, or shrivels up and dies. It’s an elemental, though ineffective, way of communicating. But plants responding to our attempts at communication? That sounded like science fiction.

Now all that could be changing.


Back in 1926, Aldous Huxley described his tour of the Bose Institute in Calcutta, during which, using graphs and bells, researchers demonstrated the instant reactions of plants to stimuli such as sunlight, electric shock, and chloroform.

Roald Dahl had his own take with his 1949 short story, “The Sound Machine,” in which a hobbyist builds a device that allows him to hear the otherwise inaudible cries of plants as their stems are cut.

Huxley’s science and Dahl’s fiction have met in recent years, with researchers striving to find out what kinds of information plants might transmit. Scientists now know that plants communicate with each other through the soil using chemicals in their roots. Engineers have embedded spinach leaves with carbon nanotubes and shown that the plants can quickly detect explosive chemicals and send signals in reaction. The doors are open to a variety of plants one day being able to convey to us a variety of information.

It turns out plants respond not to the human voice but to the carbon dioxide exhalations of the people talking to them, what scientists call “the CO2 fertilization effect.”

Still, in this brave new world of science fact meeting science fiction, there may come a time when we talk to our plants and our plants talk back. Wired to speakers and using algorithms to translate chemical reactions into spoken words, our plants might be able to effectively communicate specific needs to us. They might say, “I’m thirsty,” or, “I’m cold.”

Or even, “Talk to me.”

With a Perspective, I’m Lane Parker.

Lane Parker is an author and editor in San Francisco.