This post is part of the STEM Story Project series.
Your plants are eavesdropping.
When University of Washington researcher David Rhoades discovered that plants could communicate with each other, he was laughed out of science. But now, decades later, science is reconsidering.
In our very first STEM Story Project 2.0 piece this year, producers Peter Frick-Wright and Robbie Carver chronicle Rhoades’ controversial work and its legacy:
“Our fascination with this story has a lot to do with language and its difficulty in bridging the gap between what plants actually do and what our psyches impose on them,” says Carver. The producers set out to investigate what it means to say that plants decide, hear, or talk. “We’d love our listeners to wrestle with what it means that plants have a form of communication all their own.”
David Rhoades’ discovery about plant communication came on the heels of the release of a book called The Secret Life of Plants (1973) by Christopher Bird and Peter Tompkins. The book claimed plants were sentient, emotional creatures with the ability to communicate telepathically with humans. Unfortunately, although the book was a huge bestseller, Rhoades’ academic work was criticized, grant funding disappeared, and he eventually left science.
Today, however, Rhoades’ experiments have been replicated, and his theories confirmed. Scientists have found evidence that plants not only communicate with each other but can also acknowledge kin, respond to sound waves, and share resources through networks of underground fungi.
For example, researchers at Ben-Gurion University found that pea plants exposed to drought emitted chemicals from their roots that caused nearby, non-exposed plants to defend themselves against the same conditions. In another fascinating experiment, Ted Farmer of the University of Lausanne set out to prove that electrical signals also come into play when it comes to plant communication. His research team place microelectrodes on plant leaves of the Arabidopsis thaliana plant and allowed Egyptian cotton leafworms to chow down on them. They noticed that voltage changes in the tissue occurred within seconds, radiating from the damaged sites outward.
Carver notes, “We had no idea, when starting this story, that plants could do some of the things they do, and it completely changed the way we look at this part of the ecological world.”
Open your ears and your mind to a radio story about the “father of the field” of plant communications.