The Secret Life of Plants


Rabbi Zamir Cohen

The international scientific community has produced a series of remarkable studies relating to plants. According to their research, the world of plants – which outwardly appears devoid of senses and feelings – is not what we imagine it to be. Plants actually have a rich emotional life and highly developed senses, and are even capable of expressing a wide range of emotions, including, but not limited to, pain, fear, and joy.

Do Plants Have Feelings?

A major comprehensive summary of these findings appeared in the book The Secret Life of Plants by Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird, which was first published in 1973 and subsequently released in numerous editions, garnering a major audience and generating tremendous interest. This book, and others that followed, have revealed spectacular insights into the hidden world of flora. Renowned scientists now confirm without a doubt that plants have emotions and feelings, and that they are able to understand and be understood by the world around them.

We begin with a scene from The Secret Life of Plants:

In a lab, located in the City of Westminster, there is an unfortunate carrot strapped to the table of an unlicensed vivisector. Wires pass through two glass tubes full of a white substance; they are like two legs, whose feet are buried in the flesh of the carrot. When the vegetable is pinched with a pair of forceps, it winces. It is so strapped that its electric shudder of pain pulls the long arm of a very delicate lever which actuates a tiny mirror. This casts a beam of light on the frieze at the other end of the room, and thus enormously exaggerates the tremor of the carrot. A pinch near the right-hand tube sends the beam seven or eight feet to the right and a stab near the other wire sends it far to the left.

This amazing description was cited from the British magazine, Nation, reporting on discoveries revealing that plants inhabit a rich world full of senses and feelings. The specific experiment cited by Nation was the work of Sir Jagdish Chandra Bose, researcher of international renown and one of the pioneers of research in the field of plantlife. Bose had been studying plant responses to various stimuli in their environment by the end of the 19th century, and one day, a bold idea entered his head. He placed a crescograph – a device he had invented for measuring growth in plants – upon the leaves of a plant in his research area. The results were incredible! Not believing what he had found, Bose tried his experiment again and again to ensure that his discoveries were accurate. It became clear to Bose that plants responded to various kinds of contact and experience in the same manner as other living creatures. From that moment forward, Bose dedicated himself to investigating his findings, revealing that many plants and vegetables express sensations in ways that are measurable by science.

When he first reported his research results to the British scientific community, his colleagues found it difficult to comprehend – this despite the fact that Bose’s research had been performed with impeccable scientific precision. But after Bose personally presented his findings to the chief British scientific institutions, the scientific establishment had no choice but to accept his discoveries, evoking tremendous excitement.

Bose was invited to demonstrate his findings before the members of the Linnean – the society of scientists in London. The most respectable professors of the Linnean could not believe what they saw: a special magnifying system showed a cabbage leaf cringe in agony as it was being boiled to death. They saw a radish grow “exhausted” just like a muscle and then become “angry” as if it had a nervous system. They witnessed how a tremble passed through a vegetable at the moment of “death,” in the same way that a dying creature shudders in the seconds before its life ends.

In the wake of his demonstration, Bose received funding to launch a research institution of his own, and received an honorary degree for his work.

Decades later, the scientific establishment in what was then the Soviet Union also recognized that plants have feelings that can be expressed in a clear manner. In 1970, the leading Russian newspaper Pravda announced in an explosive headline:

“Plants Speak. Yes, They Shout! Only to Avoid Embarrassing People Do They Keep Their Pain to Themselves.”

In the article attached to the headline, Vladimir Chertkov, one of the most important journalists at Pravda, described in vivid detail his visit to the climate laboratory at the famous Moscow Agricultural Academy, Timiriazev. Among other things, he recalled a sheaf of wheat crying out in terror as its roots were boiled in steaming water. A highly sensitive electronic meter, similar to an EKG utilized for measuring human heartbeats, registered each and every cry of the plant, as red ink jumped across rolls of white paper. Chertkov also described Russian experiments suggesting that plants could comprehend signs sent to them from their environment and were able to offer signs of their own to the world around in return. These were incredible discoveries, marvels of the world of modern science aided by highly sensitive, delicate electronic devices.

But now I want to ask a question.

Before the invention of electricity and highly complex sensory equipment, could it have been possible for someone to have known this amazing secret of nature – to say with complete confidence that plants experience feelings and pain that force them to cry out in tiny unheard voices?

About 1,500 years ago, when the Oral Torah was being transcribed, the following teaching was recorded in the Midrashic text, Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer (Chapter 34):

“When a tree is felled, its voice travels from one end of the earth to the other, though it is not heard.”

How could these teachers of Torah have known a secret of nature that was only recently discovered by means of complex electronic devices?

Throughout its history, the Jewish people have always known the answer: The One who created the world knows the mysteries and secrets of creation, and every detail He deemed appropriate to reveal in the Written or Oral Torah has been preserved and passed on by the sages from generation to generation.

Let us suggest that despite their many advances, scientific discoveries are still in their “infancy.” The electronic devices that exist today are primitive when compared to the Torah’s understanding. Modern-day equipment does not have the ability to measure the distance that the voice of a chopped tree can travel. Yet, the Creator of the world revealed it to us: The voice of the tree travels around the entire globe.

(Let me state the obvious here: The pain and suffering of plants is not exactly like that of other living creatures. Rather, what was discovered were particular frequencies which are similar in form to emotional responses. For this reason, we don’t find a Torah prohibition against causing plants suffering, as we do regarding other living creatures.)

Can Plants Perceive?

Another important section from The Secret Life of Plants describes how the incredible world of plants was discovered “accidentally” in another part of the world – this time in the United States.

In 1966, Cleve Backster, an American expert in the use of polygraphs (lie detector machines), decided to attach a polygraph machine to a plant in his office as he watered it. To his utter amazement, the needle on the polygraph jumped in a manner similar to a person who had become mildly excited. The slightly dismayed expert wanted to check if he would be able to create stronger reaction and he decided to burn the plant. Before he could even say a word about his plan, let alone put it into action, the needle of the polygraph shot up dramatically. The plant was behaving just like a person being tested and exhibiting a strong emotional response. Apparently, the plant was able to perceive the approaching danger more than if it could if it had human eyes.

This was only the beginning. The American expert dropped all his other pursuits and dedicated himself to experiments concerning plants and their stunning mysteries. “I soon discovered that plants can see better without eyes, and sense better without a nervous system,” he said.

Cleve Backster is a best known for his experiments with biocommunication in plant and animal cells using a polygraph machine in the 1960s which led to his theory of “primary perception.” He reported observing that a polygraph instrument attached to a plant leaf registered a change in electrical resistance when the plant was harmed or even threatened with harm. He argued that plants perceived human intentions, and as Backster began to investigate further, he also reported a finding that other human thoughts and emotions caused reactions in plants that could be recorded by a polygraph instrument. He termed the plants’ sensitivity to thoughts “primary perception,” and published his findings from the experiments in the International Journal of Parapsychology.

Backster then formulated a “blind” test, devoid of all human intervention, in order to exclude the possibility that the experimenter was somehow influencing the polygraph needle. He assembled a special device that randomly spilled the contents of various containers into a pot of boiling water every few minutes. Some of the containers held water, the others goldfish. Three types of philodendron were placed alone in a room with these containers and connected to a galvanometer, a device used for measuring weak electric signals.

The results of this experiment were startling. Each time the fish were poured into the pot of boiling water, all the plants responded as if in great distress.

This discovery created a stir in the scientific world and resulted in worldwide recognition for Backster. Thousands of scientists requested printed results of his work, and researchers throughout America began to speculate about potential uses of his findings.

This brings us to a teaching from the sages, which describes how one of our great rabbis understood plants’ ability to perceive, and reveals his deep understanding of plants’ emotional intelligence:

There once was a date tree that stood in the village of Hammatan that never produced fruit. People tried grafting [other date shoots] onto it, but still there was no fruit. Rabbi Tanhuma said to them, ‘This date tree sees the fronds of another date palm in Jericho and longs in her heart for them.’ The people brought some of the fronds to the date tree and grafted them on, and it produced fruit right away. (Midrash Rabbah, Bamidbar 3:1)

There is a phenomenon well-known to horticulturists: A climbing vine that is working its way towards the closest post will change its direction if someone moves the post. How is this possible? If we accept the premise that plants can see or sense their surroundings, this phenomenon can now be understood.

It is important to note the official explanation for this phenomenon from the world of botanical researchers: “Climbing plants send out tendrils that turn in ever widening circles (or that sway from side to side), until they encounter some object around which they then wrap themselves. If the object is moved or removed before the tendrils are able to wrap themselves well, they return to their previous movements, until they wrap themselves around a nearby object.”

Science, however, knows only how to describe events, but not why they happen. It has no tools to explain the ultimate goal of a plant’s movement – whether it is blindly seeking whatever it may find, or willfully moving itself towards something it desires. According to the sages (as well as recent scientific discoveries), the second explanation may indeed make more sense.

If, however, you still doubt that plants have feelings that motivate them, take careful notice of the following account.

Are Plants Affected by Love and Attention?

It is hard to believe that bestowing love and attention upon plants can cause them to grow, but this is the conclusion reached by scientists after extensive research. According to various studies, plants have an inexplicable ability to sense what is happening around them and respond in a sophisticated manner. Here is an example from The Secret Life of Plants, describing the research of Marcel Vogel, a chemist from California:

He asked one of his friends, a clinical psychologist, who had come to see for himself if there was any truth to the plant research, to project a strong emotion to a philodendron 15 feet away. The plant surged into an instantaneous and intense reaction and then, suddenly, “went dead.” When Vogel asked the psychologist what had gone through his mind, the man answered that he had mentally compared Vogel’s plant with his own philodendron at home, and thought how inferior Vogel’s was to his. The “feelings” of Vogel’s plant were evidently so badly hurt that it refused to respond for the rest of the day; in fact, it sulked for almost two weeks.

In the next stage, after dozens of experiments that proved a connection between plants and their surroundings, Vogel reached the point where any strong emotions he felt would be immediately mirrored by the plants, even when they were at a distance. The following experiment, reflecting this accomplishment, was performed by one of Vogel’s colleagues:

Back in her garden, Vivian Wiley picked two leaves from a saxifrage, one of which she placed on her bedside table, the other in the living room. “Each day when I get up,” she told Vogel, ‘I will look at the leaf by my bed and will that it continue to live; but I will pay no attention to the other. We will see what happens.”

Dr. Vogel was a research scientist for IBM’s San Jose facility for 27 years. In the 1970s Vogel did pioneering work in man-plant communication experiments. His experiments helped prove that plants have an inexplicable ability to sense what is happening around them.

A month later, she asked Vogel to come to her house and bring a camera to photograph the leaves. Vogel could hardly believe what he saw. The leaf to which his friend had paid no attention was flaccid, turning brown and beginning to decay. The leaf on which she had focused daily attention was radiantly vital and green, just as if it had been freshly plucked from the garden.

The sages also reveal that plants experience feelings of shame. The Jerusalem Talmud (Orlah 1:3) discusses an agricultural technique called havrachah, which entails the bending and planting of a branch into the ground until it takes root, at which time it is severed from the mother tree and allowed to grow on its own. The rabbis term the original tree an “old lady” and the new tree, a “child”:

How does the tree owner know [that the “child” has taken root, such that he may now sever its connection with the “old lady”]? If the leaves of the “child” are turned toward itself, it is clear that it lives on account of the “old lady.” If the leaves are turned toward the “old lady,” it is clear that the “child” lives on its own accord, for a person who lives off of his friend is embarrassed to look him in the face.

Can Plants Hear?

We have already seen that plants are aware of what is happening around them. But can they hear, as well?

Dr. T. S. Singh, Head of the Department of Botany at Annamalai University in India, asked this very question in 1950 after hearing rumors that plants that were played music to grew faster and better. Seeking proof to substantiate this claim, Singh set up a scientific lab that contained a variety of normal, healthy plants of about the same age, and had a device play tones from three different instruments at a fixed distance from the plants. The results were startling: These plants grew and produced seeds at an above average rate.

After a series of experiments confirmed these findings, a number of farmers tried applying this technique to their crops. They recorded pleasant music and played it on loudspeakers for an hour each day in fields bearing six different strains of rice. The resulting harvests were 25-60 percent greater than the normal yield.

Peter Benton, a staff member of the Canadian Department of Agriculture, tried applying the results of these experiments to help corn crops battle insect infestation, which usually resulted in heavy damage. He recorded sounds similar to those of bats and played them in the fields. The fields were rapidly cured of the intruders.

However, if these researchers thought that their efforts would increase the full complement of crops around the world, they were wrong. It turns out that certain types of music that promote the growth of one strain of plant decrease the growth rate of another. Science has still not been able to solve the mystery of the individual tonal preferences of plants.

The Talmud also speaks about the effect of sound on plants.:

The person who [cut the plants used for incense in the Temple] would say, ‘Grind it well, grind it well!’ because the sound improves the spices.

On the other hand, Rabbi Yochanan said that while the sound is good for plants, it can actually damage wine, which improves far better when it sits in a quiet place. (Keritut 6b)

In 1950, Dr. T. S. Singh conducted experiments that proved that plants that were played music to – grew faster and produced seeds at an above average rate. Farmers who recorded pleasant music and played it on loudspeakers for an hour each day had harvests that were up to 60 percent greater than the normal yield!

Plants Can Communicate!

A more recent discovery, based upon studies conducted in California, Japan, and Germany since 1996, is that plants have a sophisticated chemical language through which they communicate not only with members of their own species, but also with different types of plants, and even with insects.

For instance, when scientists clipped leaves of a sagebrush plant in a way that mimicked the damage caused by insects, the plant released a puff of a chemical called methyl jasmonate. Tobacco plants growing downwind picked up on the chemical and immediately began boosting their own level of an enzyme that makes their leaves less tasty to insects. These tobacco plants suffered 60 percent less damage from grasshoppers and caterpillars than tobacco plants situated next to unclipped sagebrush.

More recently, scientists at Kyoto University in Japan let spider mites loose on lima bean plants and tracked the plants’ responses. They found five different defense mechanisms. First, each injured plant released a chemical that changed its flavor, making it less attractive to the mites. Then, the plants released other chemicals that drifted away. Other lima bean plants received the chemical and immediately began giving off the same chemicals, making them less tasty and warning still more lima bean plants, before the mites had even reached them. Most amazingly, some of them released chemicals which summoned a whole new batch of mites, those which actually eat the spider mites attacking the lima bean plants.

These amazing discoveries of plant language, at the cutting edge of botanical research, were already known to the Jewish sages thousands of years ago.

The Ramban, in his introduction to his commentary on the Torah, wrote:

King Solomon, of blessed memory, to whom Gd gave both wisdom and knowledge, knew everything in the Torah. In fact, his grasp of the Torah was so deep that he understood the secrets of all things, including the language of plants, the language of trees and roots, and all things both hidden and revealed. He discovered all this through the study of Torah and its commentaries and teachings.

Additionally, the Talmud describes the wisdom of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, the leading sage in the Land of Israel in the first century CE: “Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai knew every part of the Tanach, Mishnah, Gemara, Halachot…, astronomy, numerical calculations, the language of the angels, the language of the spirit world, and the language of the trees…” (Sukkah 28a).

Indeed, plants do have a language and can communicate – a fact revealed by Gd through His Torah millennia ago!

Rabbi Zamir Cohen is the founder of the Hidabroot organization and has written several books on the topics of Jewish thought and law, including his national bestseller, The Coming Revolution.