Root and Branch

A word to the wise

The plants are listening, says Hephzibah Anderson

This article is taken from the October 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

Down at the allotment a few weeks back, I was clearing a patch of nasturtiums when I spotted some broad bean plants, sown with leftover seeds and promptly forgotten about. They were slug-silvered and stunted from their time in that saffron jungle, and I bewailed their fate loudly to my mother, who happened to be watering nearby. “Don’t be so negative,” she tutted. “They’ll hear you!”

Flora does seem able to detect and even interpret sounds

A small but growing body of research suggests she could be right. Flora does seem able to detect and even interpret sounds. In recent years, a team led by Monica Gagliano, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Western Australia, recorded pea seedlings growing towards the gushing of water through a pipe.

In another study, headed by environmental scientist Heidi M. Appel, the rock cress Arabidopsis was shown to differentiate between the aeolian sounds of wind and the noise of a caterpillar chomping, ramping up its production of chemical toxins in response to the latter. And in Israel, a study has found that Oenothera drummondii flowers increased the amount of sugar in their nectar when played audio of buzzing bees.

Where, you might wonder, do the dulcet tones of plant-whisperers like Prince Charles fit into all this? Well, when the Royal Horticultural Society ran a trial with tomato plants, it found that those that were spoken to grew taller. Interestingly, women’s voices proved more effective than men’s.

A consensus seems to be emerging that plants can indeed sense sound vibrations. So far, there is no science to suggest that they differentiate between specific words (besides, wouldn’t they all be Latinists?), and yet I can’t help wondering.

Though I don’t talk to my plants, I do, as I toil, mutter to myself, offering up grumpy protestations to the gardening gods and indulging in an awful lot of kvetching with my allotment neighbours. As vibrations go, it’s hardly motivating. I can’t help noticing, too, that while my plants mostly do just fine, everything my mother grows actively flourishes.

The quest for proof that talking to plants could be beneficial goes all the way back to the experimental psychologist, Gustav Fechner, who in 1848 published a book in which he argued that plants are conscious beings. His panpsychism, it should probably be noted, was rooted in a mystical experience following a nervous breakdown.

More than 50 years later, the Indian scientist, Jagadish Chandra Bose, attempted to measure electrical responses in plants, much to the distress of George Bernard Shaw, who visited his Maida Vale lab. According to Bose’s biographer, the famous vegetarian “was unhappy to find that a piece of cabbage was thrown into violent convulsion when scalded to death”. Come the 1960s, a CIA operative went so far as to wire a philodendron up to a polygraph.

The Royal Horticultural Society ran a trial with tomato plants, it found that those that were spoken to grew taller

In our own mental-health-obsessed era, talking to plants has become yet another way to make ourselves feel better – or worse, in the case of the “plant parents” now fretting over how their Swiss cheese plants will cope as they start spending time in the office once more. There is something to that. When we’re out and about, we tend to keep our homes cooler. Moreover, elevated carbon dioxide levels boost photosynthesis, so plants will miss the CO2 that their humans puff out, even if they’re not actually listening to them.

In 2017, an artist named Anastasia Loginova discovered that reading to plants helped combat her own anxiety. She also eked a piece of performance art out of it, spending six weeks reading to plants in Holland’s Leiden Botanical Garden. They were treated to Anna Karenina — in Russian. On the whole, I suspect our green companions are more interested in what other plants have to say.

And scientists have been studying that, too. What do these leafy chatterboxes “talk” about together? Their findings point to the all-consuming business of staying alive — fending off predators and fighting disease, propagating the species. Nevertheless, it’s tempting to imagine different kinds of “conversations” — the cooing over tiny seedlings, the bitchy asides at the flower and produce show.

As for my broad beans, a few days of Indian summer brought them into bloom, and tiny pods have now formed. They may of course get nipped by an early frost before they’re big enough for a late harvest, but I’m not going to worry them. Besides, they’re probably more attuned to the threat than I am, so from my lips, they will hear only encouragement. Porro et sursum!

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