Do Plants have Feelings?

The belief that our plants respond well when their owners talk to them — or even play them soothing music — is so widespread that it has begun to intrigue scientists.

So many new and startling discoveries about the living world have been made recently that many beliefs, previously dismissed as ‘folk tales’ have now come under new examination.

Plants — no one seriously believes — can feel pain or pleasure the way more complex living things do, but it is certainly true that plants have a more sensitive ‘nervous’ system than was previously known. And no one is yet sure how responsive to the world outside the plant’s sensors are.

For the houseplant enthusiast, it’s an opportunity to try a little experimentation for oneself.

The harmony of lifeDo Plants have Feelings

It is not easy to explain why human beings enjoy and respond to music — instinctively we know that our response to pleasant sounds goes far back into our deepest sub-consciousness. And as scientists discover more about the harmony of all living things on planet Earth it becomes easier to believe that plants are equipped to respond in more ways than we know.

After all, we think of plants as static things — but a speeded up film will reveal them turning to seek the light; sending questing tendrils to find the best climbing point — and reacting with speed to attackers. Recent research, for example, has shown that certain tree species can even ‘warn’ each other of an impending attack by hungry insects. A tree being feasted upon sends out a pheromone-like chemical (pheromones are the basic chemical messengers that attract and repel living creatures). Neighbouring trees of the same species pick up the message and their leaves then produce a chemical poisonous to insects which try to eat them.

Carnivorous Plants

Let us examine the reactions of the Venus Fly Trap — a carnivorous plant quite widely kept as a house plant. When a fly lands on the plant’s open ‘jaws’ the plant snaps shut with surprising speed. But when a raindrop falls, the plant ignores the fact. How does a plant know the difference?

And if it can make such a distinction, who is to say that it cannot respond to other events? We know that the plant has an ability to turn information from the outside world into a series of messages, based on tiny electric currents. It is like the way messages are passed to the brain in our own nervous system. The Venus Fly Trap can tell the difference between the splash of a single falling raindrop and the footfall of a fly — and react accordingly.


Plants react and act on their environment in many subtle ways. Their scents, shapes and colours all act as powerful statements to attract or discourage other living creatures. We can see how some plants woo butterflies and bees by sweet scents; others disguise themselves to look like stones; still others wage chemical warfare by producing powerful substances like pyrethrum and nicotine to discourage predators.

Responding to them with our own languages of music and words may reach them in ways we do not yet understand. One eminent plant breeder, Luther Burbank produced thousands of new plant hybrids through cross fertilization. be insisted that his talking calmly to the plants as be worked with them was a real factor in his success. So why not try it?

Plant reactions

Some researchers have tried to wire plants up to lie detectors to test their electrical response to good and bad treatment. It has been claimed that plants can learn to recognise a ‘Mr Nice’ who tended them well and a ‘Mr Nasty’ who pulled off their leaves. The lie detectors registered sharply zigzagging lines when ‘Mr Nasty’ entered the room; gentle, curved lines when ‘Mr Nice’ appeared.

More widely believed is the evidence that living things — other than humans — respond sensitively to music. It has long been accepted that farm animals do better and grow faster when music is played regularly. In 1968, an American researcher, Dorothy Retallack, tried to observe the effect that different types of music had on the growth of plants.

She reported that she found that the classical music of Bach, Haydn and Schubert had a positive effect on growth and that the plants even leaned in the direction of the speakers. Hard rock music, on the other hand, caused them to grow in the other direction and growth slowed down considerably.

Experiments also showed that if plants were subjected to the same tone for 8 hours every day, they died after only a short time. If they heard the same tone several times a day but with some breaks in between, they grew faster than in a room with no sounds at all.

Recent research suggests that plants do have senses and that they respond to certain stimuli. Once you discover more about the secret life of your house plants you’ll be able to encourage your plants to thrive.

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