• Dr. Timothy Smith

Yes, Your Plants Can Hear You


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Recently, on vinyl, I heard a legendary album from 1976 titled Mother Earth's Plantasia: Warm Earth Music for Plants and the People Who Love Them by Mort Garson. In this '70s classic, Garson, with the help of a Moog synthesizer, shares ambient tunes designed to nurture both plants and people. According to Sacred Bones Records, who re-released the album in March 2019, the original record was only available with the purchase of a house plant at a store in Los Angeles called Mother Earth of with a Simmons mattress at Sears. The album containing titles such as "Ode to an African Violette" and "Concerto for Philodendron & Pothos" embodied the belief that plants can hear and will thrive with beautiful music.

Plantasia suggested that plants like music. Research and numerous science fairs over the years have tested whether plants grow more with music playing than plants kept in total silence. Such research has returned mixed findings, leaving the question of music enhancing plant growth inconclusive; however, Drs. Heidi Appel and Rex Cocroft, researchers at the University of Missouri, demonstrated that plants actually can hear (Oecologia July 1, 2014). In their experiment, Appel and Cocroft used lasers to detect very fine leaf movement generated by insects eating leaves. They demonstrated that plants hear the crunching sound and then respond to the sound of insect chewing by making chemicals that deter further insect attacks. Playing only recordings of insect chewing produced the same effect, implying that the plants were somehow 'hearing' insects chewing leaves and adapted accordingly.

In a remarkably elegant experiment conducted at Tel-Aviv University in Israel, researchers found that plants, "Oenothera drummondii [evening primrose] flowers, when exposed to playback sound of a flying bee or synthetic sound signals at similar frequencies, produce sweeter nectar within 3 min, potentially increasing the chances of cross pollination." (Ecology Letters, (2019)) Using bee sounds to stimulate flower nectar production, researchers showed that plants hear bees coming and respond with an increase in nectar sweetness to enhance the chance of pollination.

Plants appear to listen for other sounds not related to insects too. In research performed at the University of Western Australia, scientists, including Monica Gagliano, set up an experiment using sweet peas to measure how the sound of running water directs root growth. The experiment used peas planted in a Y-shaped container with one side of the container having dry soil and the other side containing dry soil and plastic tubes channeling running water. (Oecologia, April 2017) They found that the roots would consistently grow towards the sound of the water. For years, research proved that plant roots could grow towards increasing moisture with a process called hydrotropism, but Gagliano and others demonstrated that the sound of running water through the tubes drew the roots to grow in the direction of the gurgling sound, meaning that plants could detect the water by hearing.

The album Plantasia: Warm Earth Music for Plants and the People who Love Them promoted the idea that plants respond to sound and will thrive with beautiful music playing. Although the research on the effects of music on plants remains inconclusive, scientists have shown that plants can most definitely hear. Plants hear the sound of insects chewing leaves and respond with producing chemicals to deter the invading bugs. Remarkably, evening primrose flowers can detect the buzzing of bees, causing them to increase nectar production, which will increase pollination rates. Plants even listen underground for the sound of water to best direct root growth. More research may show that plants detect other types of sound and subsequently respond to improve their survival, perhaps even certain types of music mimic sounds that will make plants healthier.

Dr. Smith’s career in scientific and information research spans the areas of bioinformatics, artificial intelligence, toxicology, and chemistry. He has published a number of peer-reviewed scientific papers. He has worked over the past seventeen years developing advanced analytics, machine learning, and knowledge management tools to enable research and support high level decision making. Tim completed his Ph.D. in Toxicology at Cornell University and a Bachelor of Science in chemistry from the University of Washington.

You can buy his book on Amazon in paperback here and in kindle format here.