Talk to Your Plants, but Don’t Scare Them
People from large spans of the globe saw an interesting doodle if they happened to be on Google’s search page on November 30, 2016.
A man with puffy hair and round glasses was seated next to a plant on his desk. The very tip of the plant had a string tied to it which came across the desk over the gentleman’s head and connected to a machine-like contraption. A squiggle on a chalkboard behind hinted at the fact that we may be looking at a scientist.
The man in the doodle was none other than Jagadish Chandra Bose. And the doodle was celebrating his 158th birthday. The machine seen tugging on the poor plant is an artist’s rendition of Bose’s invention—the crescograph. The crescograph recorded plant movement and growth, one of many kinds of sciences Bose pioneered in the first quarter of the 20th century. A true polymath, Bose made fundamental discoveries in physics, biophysics, biology, botany, and even archeology. He is credited to have pioneered wireless communication but never patented any of his ideas, because he believed that the fruits of science were for everyone to enjoy. So diverse and impactful were his so many contributions that there is a crater on the moon named after him.
One of the most important areas of his contribution was in investigating plant biology and establishing facts such as the presence of a “nervous system” in plants and drawing parallels between the biology of plants and animals. In some sense, Bose deserves much credit for convincing the world that plants are alive.
We know much more today. Not only are plants alive, but they also appear to hear. Yes! You read it right—plants seem to be able to hear or at least feel vibrations. So your elderly relative was not totally losing the plot when found to be whispering sweet nothings to their plants. While it has been known that plants grow differently when they are played music to, a recent paper (Appel and Cocroft, 2014) demonstrates what might be a defensive response to a plant-eating insect. When exposed to vibrations caused by caterpillars munching on leaves, plants excreted chemicals that made their leaves less appetizing to the caterpillars. These findings mostly demonstrate a sensory pathway for information intake for plants and a way to react to information from the environment. We may have people bringing their plants into our clinics tomorrow to check out their vibration sensors.
Appel HM, Cocroft RB. (2014) Plants respond to leaf vibrations caused by insect herbivore chewing. Oecologia 175(4):1257–1266.