In my senior year of college, I decided to sign up for a gardening class on a whim. I only needed one more class to graduate and needed something to fill up my time, plus I had always been passionate about food and sustainability—and what sounds more relaxing than spending three hours a week in a garden?
As part of the course, we were given a small plot to tend to by filling with broccoli, colorful cauliflower, spinach, kale, onions, and juicy tomatoes. These plots were passed down by the former students and featured some stragglers that were holding on for dear life after a mild North Carolina winter. My inherited plot featured a withering stock of kale that I could have easily tossed out to make way for new goodies. But, my professor recommended that I try to revive it—by talking to it, of all things.
“They like it,” he told me.
Now, it might have been the sunshine or my desire to get an A in gardening, but I spoke to it. Each day while I was watering my plant babies, I would crouch down near the kale stock and tell it how resilient it was and how proud of it I was. “I know you can do it,” I whispered.
In addition to my daily affirmations, it received fertilizer, fresh compost, and plenty of H2O. After a few weeks, it started to perk up and was suddenly producing so many kale leaves I didn’t know what to do with them.
If talking to them makes me crazy, that's fine. Forming a bond with these inanimate objects really helps me care for them.
To this day, I still occasionally chat with my houseplants, by telling them I’m proud of them for producing new growth or profusely apologizing if I was late on my watering schedule. They seem to be doing well. But, I couldn’t help wondering if talking to my plants actually helped or if it just made me feel like a better plant parent.
Dr. Heidi Appel, Ph.D., horticulturist and professor of environmental science at the University of Toledo, explains that plants don’t understand what we’re saying, whether it’s positive to negative, similar to when we try to have a conversation with our pets. However, she believes that talking to them can make us better plant parents.
“The bottom line is that plants don’t translate anything we say into meaning,” she said. “But, anytime that we identify closely with another living thing, we take responsibility for it. I think we become much better caretakers, and because of that, the plants will do better.”
Anytime we identify closely with another living thing, we take responsibility for it. We become much better caretakers, and because of that, the plants will do better.
For example, when I notice a new sprout growing on my money plant—and later tell it how excited I am—it shows how aware of my houseplants I am. I’m giving it proper watering, better lighting, and fertilizer when needed so my babies thrive. If talking to them makes me crazy, that's fine. Forming a bond with these inanimate objects really helps me care for them.
“We humans were famous for forming bonds for animate and inanimate objects,” Appel says. “So yeah, talk to your plants—just don’t expect them to listen.”
While plants may not respond or react to what we’re saying, there is evidence that they react to vibrations, though the research on this is relatively new. “As far as I know, there's no evidence that plants respond to sound,” Rich Marini, Ph.D., a professor of horticulture at Penn State, says. “They do respond to vibrations, and sound creates vibrations through soundwaves.”
Appel has researched how plants respond to leaf vibrations caused by insect herbivore chewing, based on replicating the vibrations formed by the chomping of caterpillars. From the vibrations alone, she found that plants would elicit chemical defenses, even though they were not physically harmed.
There is one known study by the Royal Horticultural Society in 2009 where researchers discovered that tomato plants grow faster to the sound of a female voice recording attached to them with headphones. However, the plants only grew an inch, and the study hasn’t been replicated on a mass scale to show any concrete research. It’s like those high school science experiments where students attempt to prove that listening to a certain kind of music will help plants grow.
Plants also “talk” with each other using their own chemicals. Through chemical ecology, scientists have been able to learn how plants can communicate with each other and with insects, Marini explained. For instance, if a beetle starts feeding on a leaf, that plant turns on certain genes that produce volatiles that can attract predators, helping to protect the plant.
So, plants are communicating—they’re just not able to listen in the same way we do. I do know that my plants aren’t hearing what I’m saying, and there isn’t any research proving that it impacts their growth. But, speaking to the wilted ones I once neglected does make me focus my energy on caring for them, therefore, helping them return to their former glory.
If you’ve been frustrated with your brown thumb, try chatting with your finicky fiddle-leaf fig, you just might form a special bond that will help them thrive once again.