• Rose Smith

The Language of Plants

Photo Source: National Park Service

One of my favorite records in my collection is a reprint of a 1976 album called Mother Earth’s Plantasia: Warm Music for Plants and the People Who Love Them. The album came with a booklet on how to take care of plants and a little behind-the-scenes look on the album. As whimsical as the idea of music for plants may be, plants have their own way of communicating with each other and the world around it, including by sound.

One of the ways plants communicate with each other is through chemicals called volatile organic compounds, or VOCs (The Scientist). Plants will release chemicals for a variety of reasons to alert the other plants around it. For instance, if a bean plant gets infested with aphids, it will release VOCs to the other plants around it to warn it of the impending bug threat, and all of them, even if they aren’t being attacked, will release a chemical that repels aphids and attracts wasps that eat the aphids. In another experiment, researchers realized that not only do plants release their VOCs through the air, but also through the ground. Underground, fungi networks will connect plants’ roots through the network, so VOCs can also transmit signals through the ground.

Plants also respond to touch. If a plant’s leaves are touched a by other branches and leaves it will interpret that there is a bunch of plant competition for shade and adjust their growth accordingly (The Guardian). For some, that means more rapid expansion above the ground such as growing more leaves. For other plants, specifically among more mature trees, they experience “canopy” shyness and rein in their growth. This will help plants deal with growing competition for nutrients and sunlight. Since they can’t move around, they have to deal with their other plant neighbors in other ways.

Trees are also known to make sounds. In fact, we have been able to track the inner sounds of trees, which allegedly sounds akin to a thunderstorm on first listen (Andaman Chronicle). We have also been able to pick up the sounds of trees ‘drinking’ which carries a distinctive click sound. Using this knowledge, we also can help protect trees from droughts. Inside every tree, there are little tubes called xylem. These tubes help carry water in a tree up to the top of the tree using pressure (National Geographic). However, during a drought, there is less water to go around, so there will be pockets of air between water molecules, and it will also take more pressure to take the water up to the higher leaves. These air pockets will cause the xylem to break, creating a popping sound. A tree can withstand only so much of these breakages. However, a team of French scientists finally found a way to pick these breaks up. If scientists can pick these pops up in time, they can take action against the drought conditions to help protect the tree.

It might seem weird and whimsical to imagine that plants communicate with each other or make sounds, but there is more truth to that sentiment than one may expect. In fact, plants communicate in plenty of ways, including touch, chemicals, or even sound. Researchers will be able to use some of the ways plants communicate to help protect them or gain more information on the environment. It goes to show that there is more than meets the eye when it comes to the world around us.