These days it’s a generally accepted scientific fact that plant to plant communication actually does exist. They have the amazing ability to ‘talk’ to each other using hormones released into the air. They also use interconnected root systems and minute electrical signals and sounds to warn their neighbours of impending insect attacks, drought and other threats.
But what about human interaction with plants, like stroking their leaves, playing music or the well-known belief that talking to them will encourage growth and keep them happy?
I remember reading a newspaper interview years ago in which Prince Charles added another notch to his reputation of being a little loony when he famously announced that he regularly talks to his bushes and shrubs at Highgrove – and they “respond quite marvelously and send messages in return.”
Naturally the British press had a field day with his comments and once the laughter died down he recanted in a princely sort of way and said he merely ‘instructs’ his plants to do things.
Shortly after hearing the news that Prince Charles royally commands his shrubs to behave themselves, the Royal Horticultural Society decided to put his plant-whispering theory to the test. In an informal experiment, they attached small speakers to plant pots and began bombarding their leafy subjects with human voices reciting works of Shakespeare and other plays to measure the effects on their growth.
Of course the study turned out to be inconclusive – probably because one of the recordings chosen was a reading of the post-apocalyptic tale The Day of the Triffids, which I think would be enough to scare the petals off any plant.
Talking to plants might be a bit of a stretch but playing music may at least have some measurable effect on their growth habit.
A few researchers have shown that when certain musical sounds are played near select species they will begin to lean towards the speakers and grow more vigorously.
The speculation is that sound waves increase the movement of fluids within leaf surfaces which leads to more active growth. Unfortunately, the studies also show that a lot of the test subjects paid no attention to the music and many others just packed it in and died. But that didn’t stop farmers from Indiana to South Korea from planting a network of speakers among their crops and swearing that music increases yield and plant health significantly.
So, in the off chance that music actually does work, what type of sounds do plants prefer?
Some insist that ultra-high frequencies – the ones that annoy your dog and scare away raccoons – actually have the ability to stimulate growth hormones called auxins which make plants grow larger and more aggressively.
Others think lower frequencies will do the trick and recommend playing a little Isaac Hayes, Barry White, or that guy who sings the bass part for the Oak Ridge Boys to keep them happy.
Then there are the people who may be letting their musical tastes get in the way by advocating a 24-hour diet of rap music, thumping club mixes and – perish the thought – Celine Dion.
Unfortunately, as much as we would like to believe it, there is no irrefutable scientific evidence to prove that talking, touching, tickling or playing music to plants actually has any beneficial effect on their growth rate or health.
What we do know is that they will be far more likely to flourish with a healthy environment of nutrients, warmth, water, and adequate light than with a dose of Shakespeare or Led Zeppelin.
Even so, when I am working in the greenhouse these days, the first thing I do is turn on the radio and give the plants a blast of Beethoven and Bartok.
And just in case they are in the mood for a little conversation, I might occasionally take time out for a healthy little chat, starting with something along the lines of “Getting enough water?”; “How’s the family?”; or “Any whitefly bothering you lately?”
It might not help but it can’t hurt, and who knows, they might even start to talk back.
Steven Chadwick is a professional gardener and horticulturist, and long-time Beach resident