Last month, as Spain lifted its lockdown, a string quartet took the stage at Barcelona’s Gran Teatre de Liceu. They played Emilio Puccini’s I Crisantemi, or The Chrysanthemums to a packed audience of 2,292 plants: Not shadowy spies or shills or Bloomberg supporters, but the leafy kind made up of cellulose and sunshine. The hall is a study in gilded, rococo opulence whose elegance is only heightened by its verdant patrons. The music has a thickened kind of dissonance, like a furry tongue in the morning. Puccini composed the piece in response to the sudden death of a friend, and the resulting elegy — in Italy, the flower bespeaks death — fittingly invokes both mourning and anger.
The performance was conceived of by artist Eugenio Ampuda, who told the Guardian that “At a time when an important part of humankind has shut itself up in enclosed spaces and been obliged to relinquish movement, nature has crept forward to occupy the spaces we have ceded.” Although I love the mental image of three spider plants in a trenchcoat trying to sneak past a ticket taker, these potted plants did zero creeping, sidling or slinking. Rather, they were donated by local nurseries and were redistributed to healthcare workers after the performance. And while the performance, entitled Concert for the Biocene, made for stunning visuals, the base concept of playing music to plants has been around for a while.
You’ve probably heard that you should talk to your plants. If you’re Prince Charles, you might even try shaking a branch or stem in an approximation of a handshake to “wish it well.” Unsurprisingly, plants prefer you don’t touch them, though not all as explicitly as the touch-me-not, or mimosa pudica, whose ferny little fronds curl up in abject horror at human touch. (A common American name is the comically Puritannical “shameplant.”) And it’s worth pointing here to the pitfalls of anthropomorphizing plants and other nonhuman life, an extension of the phenomenon where “white America values fur over brown skin,” as one letter to white people’s pets put it. I also always assumed that you would have to be quite heavily mouth-breathing at your monsteras to produce enough carbon dioxide to accelerate their growth. That really, it’s the increased level of focus and attention of having a string-of-hearts to heart that might lead you to notice your plant was looking a little droopy, or yellowing, or otherwise maladied enough to pull out your diagnostic app of choice.
Plants definitely respond to negative, threatening stimuli. But positive stimuli? It’s hard to tell
But a 2009 study conducted by the UK’s Royal Horticultural Society found that talking to plants did, in fact bear fruit. Researchers put headphones over the pots of 10 tomato plants and played them a variety of recorded texts, which included nursery rhymes, songs, poems, Shakespearean extracts and other literary fragments, as well as scientific texts. Two plants were not read to, as a control. There was already some prior evidence that there was more at play than just feeling the good vibrations: RHS Garden curator Colin Crosbie told the BBC that “We know that sounds of between 125 hz and 250 hz can affect gene expression in plants and help them grow but this has only been tested using music.” The study was framed in popular media as “The Voice” for plants, and Crosbie alluded to eventually prepackaging a record for nervous plant parents: “We may even be able to standardize the practice by recording the perfect voice for those less confident in conversing with their plants.” A more recent study, however, has found that plants can tell the difference between a recording of running water and the real thing — and that roots grow towards the sound first before moisture.
A number of other bioacoustic studies have further suggested that plants do indeed respond to sound. Many plants use minute vibrations to shore up their defenses: When played music whose minute vibrations match those of insects feeding, the rockcress responds by producing extra stores of mustard oil, its natural pesticide. This in turn leaves the plants better prepared when actual caterpillars come by, in a kind of sonic vaccination that might well increase yield with other plants that produce useful medicinal compounds. Or take the macabre chrysanthemum: audible sound is believed to alter its levels of growth hormone, making it grow faster. The roots of maize seedlings meanwhile grow in the direction of sound not unlike the way sunflowers turn towards the sun as a source of nourishment. While plants like lamb’s ears and elephant ears are named for their leaves’ resemblances to animal soundflaps, the flower itself has long been known to function as an ear for the buzzing of pollinators.
While sorting the inconclusive science of how domestic plants interpret their surroundings, I begin modestly crafting a playlist on a theme: cheery, sunshiney songs for my own houseplants, which prospered up until the quarantine began and disrupted my watering routines. They’ve never quite recovered; I could swear they droop accusingly when they see me coming. Quarantine sparked the idea that “nature is healing” in the outside world with the temporary shutdown of human public life, but said less of domesticated nature, which thrives on human attention. Could my own budding Now That’s What I Call Plant Music! franchise encourage them to thrive once more? It would include the Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun” and Len’s ’90s banger “Steal My Sunshine,” definitely. Perhaps Spiderbait’s “Sunshine On My Window” and Violent Femmes’s “Blister in the Sun” too, in deference to my west-facing windows that do their best to make things crispy.
The Horticultural Society researchers expected the plants to respond better to male voices, because of their sonically deeper range, but were surprised at the results: At the end of the month-long study, the plants who were played female voices grew an average of an inch taller than those who were played recordings of men. One plant listened to a recording of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species read by the scientist’s great, great granddaughter Sarah Darwin, a botanist herself. This plant grew a full half inch more than its nearest competitor, close to two inches taller than the best performing plant given a male recording. One imagines that another couple of months listening to this text — the equivalent of a daily motivational affirmation — would inspire the plant to spontaneously evolve.
Added to playlist: “Ain’t No Sunshine When She’s Gone.”
In 1973, Peter Tompkins and Christopher Baird published the bestselling The Secret Life of Plants, which blended pseudoscience, elves-and-faeries Celtic mythology, and some good old-fashioned ~cosmic vibes~ to insist that plants were capable of feeling emotion, and might flourish with some music listening. The book details some dubious experiments with a polygraph machine, and summarizes the work of a number of scientists including radio and microwave pioneer and father of Bengali sci-fi, Jagdish Chandra Bose. In the early 1910s, Bose conducted a number of botanical experiments using his own invention of the crescoscope, which can measure plant growth at a microscopic level. He concluded that plants respond to some physical stimuli (especially trauma) electronically, and not chemically, which is to say that they feel pain, and might by extension be sentient. Bose invited the leading scientific and literary figures of the era to demonstrations at his lab, including playwright and notable vegetarian Bernard Shaw, who was reportedly aghast at seeing a cabbage “thrown into violent convulsion when scalded to death.”
For me Plantasia doesn’t just calm the anxiety that has become an ever-pervasive background hum this year, but serves as a mood lifter too
Bose’s findings would go on to influence others with a less scientific, spookier mindset, who took these findings of a nascent plant consciousness as the starting point for their own theories. They included CIA interrogation specialist — talk about responding to traumatic stimuli — Cleve Backster, who was convinced that plants felt pain, had extrasensory perception, and could communicate with other lifeforms. He was a polygraph enthusiast, founding the CIA’s own unit, and used the now discredited instrument for his own experiments, which were rejected by the scientific community but widely reported upon at the time. More recent discoveries like the mushroomy “internet of plants” suggest that Backster might have been onto something. (Over 90 percent of land plants have fungi friends with benefits!) The “wood wide web” operates through mycorrhizal networks but evince such a sophisticated communication apparatus that — leaving the polygraphs aside — I, for one, am completely ready to believe that the truth is out there.
The Secret Life of Plants would in turn inspire an eponymous 1979 documentary by Walon Green, soundtracked by none other than Stevie Wonder, who would later release his soundtrack as a deeply weird, beguiling double album. It has a real bathroom-renovated-in-the-1970s energy: sitar-y loops, brown granite countertops, definitely a shag carpet. Wonder’s Journey Through The Secret Life of Plants was universally panned at the time, but has been more recently reevaluated, particularly for its synthy synthesis between ecology and the global suppression of Black and Brown people, with one song Same Old Story specifically dedicated to Bose and George Washington Carver’s succeeding despite facing significant racial discrimination: “For those who find what’s real too hard to believe in / It’s that same old story again.”
Today, the seemingly insatiable appetite for houseplants is all but synonymous with interiors. The Chinese have a 3,000 year old history of houseplants — dating back to the earliest recordings of Feng Shui — and the Babylonians (see: the Hanging Gardens) and Victorians (they prized orchids, ferns, and tropical spoils) were equally known for their houseplant obsessions. The contemporary boom can however be traced back to the 1970s and the popularity of the environmental movements that exploded in the prior decade. Given how influential The Secret Life of Plants was, we might wonder whether its popularity contributed, too.
Beyond Stevie Wonder, a number of other musicians were moved to release plant music in the 1970s, many of which are being reissued today. They include Ann Chase’s acoustic guitar, flute and plant consciousness spoken-word cover of Eric Satie’s Gymnopédies No 1, titled A Chant For Your Plants, which is better left in the past, and Baroque Bouquet’s Plant Music. Released in 1977, the latter promises “Music to keep your plants healthy and happy. We know our music will stimulate a favorable response within your growing plants,” with liner notes that cite Bose and Backster, among other researchers in the same vein. Its delightful cover is rivalled only by dentist-horticulturist Dr. George Milstein’s Music to Grow Plants To (1970), an EZ listening dream which notably predates the book and includes very high frequency sounds — a literal plant whistle — that are occasionally audible to the listener too.
Later came ambient and environmental composer Hiroshi Yoshimura’s 1986 album Green, reissued earlier this year, which feels like the perfect soundtrack to the quiet, furious focus that sometimes opens up at the heart of pandemic life. The best known of all these planty records might however be Mort Garson’s iconic 1976 record (reissued 2019) Plantasia, which was initially available only at Los Angeles’ Mother Earth Plant Boutique — its owners wrote the accompanying booklet on plant care — as well as, bizarrely, sent to you if you bought a Sears Simmons mattress in 1976. A Juilliard-trained pianist, Garson was primarily known as a songwriter and session musician before becoming one of the first musicians to work with the Moog synthesizer. With song titles like “Symphony for a Spider Plant” and “A Mellow Mood for Maidenhair” and “You Don’t Have to Walk a Begonia,” the album doesn’t just speak to houseplants in general but specific ones. A 2020 sequel, I imagine, might have songs dedicated to hoyas, ZZs, pilea peperomioides and all manner of variegated wonders. Plus, while Green demands a kind of active listening that might be a big ask in the current climate, Plantasia seems to work its soothing magic on humans too. For me it doesn’t just calm the anxiety that has become an ever-pervasive background hum this year, but serves as a mood lifter too.
Has any of this music helped my houseplants? The aforementioned experiments seem to suggest that plants definitely respond to negative, threatening stimuli whether the intimation of hungry caterpillars or direct trauma. But positive stimuli? It’s hard to tell: being at home round the clock seems to have disrupted the watering and care routines I’d established in those halcyon pre-pandemic days when I was only at home most, not all of the time. More broadly, we might see all these records as the equivalent of binaural beats for plants: perhaps they help, but there’s probably a good measure of self-fulfilling prophecy here. If you believe your plants are grooving along to the music you so lovingly play for them (Dr. Milstein recommends 45 minutes a day), they probably will flourish in turn.
The best communication, of course, goes two ways. A 2019 study in Tel Aviv suggests that plants emit high-pitched sounds when cut or otherwise stressed; humans might perceive this as screaming silently inside their hearts. And just as we talk to our pets, it follows that we might want to converse with — and not just at — our plant children too. A number of new devices such as Music of the Plants and Plantwave (formerly MIDI Sprout) update Bose’s crespometer to translate your houseplants — electronic signals into ambient sound. There are some notable differences between the two devices. Plantwave originated as an art project and goes hard on the millennial aesthetic, and is absolutely the kind of product that would be advertised alongside period panties and luxury bedding on the subway. (Free marketing idea: bundle it with Casper mattresses.) Music of the Plants is rather more crunchy, and emerges from the truly fascinating Piedmontese eco-community (and possible cult) of Damanhur, which devotes itself to the study of plant communication. The complex also boasts a subterranean Temple of Humankind replete carved pillars, mosaics and some truly wild imagery.
More broadly, we can understand these devices as working toward a kind of botanical quantified self, and indeed some plant parents use the devices as a baby monitor. For example, you might listen to your houseplant feed while travelling (remember travelling?), realize that the timbre or melodic changes mean that your plants are feeling thirsty or sunburnt, and text your negligent roommate to administer planty first aid. The quantified cellulose, perhaps.
In the age of plantfluencers, the health of your windowsill thyme translates directly to money. Even as millennials surround themselves with greenery to mitigate the stresses of daily life, keeping houseplants alive produces its own anxieties about overwatering or insufficient indoor sunlight. The result is a burgeoning industry that capitalizes on these pervasive feelings of failure to market products, from the aforementioned apps and devices to self-watering pots, plug-and-play hydroponic gardens, and weather modules that integrate with a smart home system to control variables like light and humidity and create optimal houseplant conditions. Smart planters like the Lüa, which continuously measure soil health and translate that into one of 15 animated faces. Only six of these faces — a toothy vampire when lacking vitamin D, or a doglike panting face when thirsty — correspond to plant health. The others work to anthropomorphize plants, turning them into little Tamagotchi-like pets. In turn seems to say something about the way we need to first frame nonhuman life as human-ish — plants, they’re just like us! — as a precondition for empathy.
We might understand this impulse as a sort of leavesdropping too, not unlike sitting in a public place in a different country and listening in on all the conversations around you in a language you don’t speak. You might understand only every 10th or 100th word, but you can still parse some of what’s going on through things like emotion, inflection, and body language. Despite the inherent voyeurism — might this be considered a violation of wiretapping laws in the future — at a time when we continue to decimate the natural world around us, listening to plants and deepening our connection to the environment can only help. Perhaps nature has been trying to communicate with us all this time. Now, we finally can hear it.