Plant Smarts: Do Plants Feel?

Plant Smarts: Do Plants Feel?

I’ve always been intrigued with research that shows that plants communicate and may even show feelings (see my experiences below) but am aware of skepticism surrounding the subject. There’s a 1973 book “The Secret Life of Plants” by Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird that talks about polygrapher Cleve Backster’s studies with plants. Briefly, Backster, a well-respected lie detector expert, on a whim attached electrodes to a leaf on his office dracaena plant, curious to see how it reacted. When he watered it and dunked the leaf in hot coffee, there was no reaction. Then he decided to burn the leaf and before he moved for the match, the galvanometer reacted, which became stronger when he came back in the room with retrieved matches. He went on to show in many experiments that plants reacted to threats. He also showed that plants responded with certain people and not with others.

Many of Backster’s ideas, even those without good experimental support, may turn out to have some basis in reality….”  Jack Schultz, PhD, Director Life Sciences Lab, U of Missouri

Backster’s research has been criticized because he did not replicate his studies. The Discovery channel Mythbusters even explored it and found initially the plants reacted, but did not in further experiments.

I asked Jack Schultz, a leading researcher in plant communication, what he thought of Backster’s research: “It’s very difficult to get good electrical recordings from plants. They are grounded, after all.   That said, many of Backster’s ideas, even those without good experimental support, may turn out to have some basis in reality. For example, modern methods support the idea that electrical impulses travel through plants and may coordinate their responses to the environment.  And plants have turned out to be quite responsive (in other ways) to many of the stimuli Backster used, with the exception of thought.  That possibility – that thought influences plants – remains unsupported by either data or logic.”

People magazine photo with Baldwin and Schultz

Schultz and researcher Ian Baldwin are considered co-pioneers in plant communication research. Their research in the 1980s showed poplars and maples that were being threatened then released defensive chemicals that turned on defenses in nearby trees. More specifics below: 

  • Ian Balwin has a lab in Utah and is a director at Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology. He and his colleagues are developing tools that knock out (or knock down) genes involved in making chemical signals. His lab’s recent work demonstrated that plants nibbled by herbivorous insects changed the ratio of isomers of their signaling molecules. This attracted predators of the leaf-eaters.
  • As a chemical ecologist, Jack Schultz continues to research plant response to insects and other stressors at the U of Missouri. The National Science Foundation has funded him for more than 25 years, with current projects funded  by more than $4 million worth of grants.(More on Jack Schultz)
  • Schultz provided the following links on Stefano Mancuso, a founder in the study of plant neurobiology, saying he’s a big proponent of plant intelligence: 1) TED video talk.  and 2) Wired article about Stefano: “Smarty Plants: Inside the World’s Only Plant-Intelligence Lab

Can’t finish without some anecdotal…. It’s no secret that plant lovers talk to their plants, and claim they do better because of it. (Tho that alone doesn’t cut it – if you talk to your plants might you not notice they need a little water….?)  We DO talk to our plants a lot, especially ones that are not doing well. One is a potted 4 foot joshua tree that was drowning because roots were blocking the drain holes of its pot, so we moved it, breaking off it’s primary taproot. We’ve transplanted it twice now and are amazed it’s still alive – the last time we noticed all its roots had rotted off due to overwatering (I should have listened to it more…). I showed photos to a longtime cacti nursery owner and he was surprised it looked as good as it did. We also had a young apple tree we pulled out of the ground when its sudden lopsidedness yelled “help, gophers” – it had only one tiny root left. We potted it over the winter, talking to it often and were glad when it leafed out in the spring. In late summer we needed to rent out the house so assuming it had rooted, we put it back in the ground – but were shocked when we saw it had no new roots. How had it survived and leafed out when it had no roots? We came back a couple months later to find it had died. Yes, anecdotal but makes one wonder….


About Linda Richards

My goal is to educate about the science of nature in layperson speak, through my writing, science and education background. I grew up in the Chicago area, loved living in Minneapolis before gravitating to the West, which is now home.


  1. Really intriguing story! Which reminds me – I better go feed and water my plants and have a nice little conversation with them. Do you think they talk with one another?

    • There is some evidence they do. In their research in the 80s, U of Missouri plant researcher Schultz and fellow researcher Ian Baldwin did show the trees under attack did seem to cause the other trees to turn on defenses, through chemical signals. Isn’t that communication? Also Schultz emailed me that there’s new evidence “that the vibrations caused by insect chewing can turn on defenses. In a sense, plants can “hear” the attack.” Very interesting indeed.

Speak Your Mind