Richard H. Kern, You-pel-lay, or Green Corn Dance as performed by the Jemez Indians.

You-pel-lay, or green corn dance as performed by the Jemez Indians.
Plant-man rapport was known to many native tribes who danced and prayed for their crops.

Plants Have Feelings, Too

L. George Lawrence

. . . Can positive thinking unlock plant growth potential? Does love have anything to do with green-thumb success? New findings and old evidence present a fascinating case.

There was a time, when I was a child, when the whole world seemed alive and knowing. Trees were friends and, as George Eliot put it, ". . . flowers see us and know what we're thinking about." Then came a time when plants just grew, silently and without emotion. But today, I'm entering a second childhood, at least as far as plants are concerned. The only conclusion one can draw from recent experiments is that plants seem to be able to sense and feel. Injurious thoughts can literally wither a plant. And positive thinking might just be the key to a "green thumb." In my own gardening experience I've noticed how an organic garden responds to the "love" it's given. When used-up nutrients and humus are replaced, and when plants are mulched and cared for naturally, they produce more luscious fare and bolder blooms.

But this alone doesn't prove plant "consciousness." From the earliest beginnings of biology, scientists recognized that all living things are endowed with the ability to sense and feel. Galen left us a good description of sensory and motor functions in 200 A.D. John Brown, in his remarkable book, Elementa Medicinae (1778), stated that excitability is a fundamental property of all living matter; and it is not restricted to muscles alone.

Brown's ideas, well in advance of his period, became the object of furious controversy. Then philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) implied that every living system, no matter how insignificant it may appear, has a distinct individuality, a coordination, a purpose, a history, a profound power of trading with time — all of which transcends the limited body of knowledge scraped together by the natural and physical sciences.

Sir J. C. Bose (1858-1937) was knighted by the British crown for his work with plants, but his academic peers shunned him as a "mystic" when he set out to prove, by verifiable experiments, that plants respond to stimuli much as animals do and may be sentient — aware of something other than themselves.

ESP in Today's Plant World

Today, science looks at plant sentience much more intelligently and with practically no bias. Private groups and professional workers, from the Presidency College of Calcutta to the University of Alberta, show us that we are entering immensely important, most dynamic, and practically untapped fields of knowledge. Most stunning perhaps is the discovery of supersensory perception in plants — something akin to ESP! This marvelous discovery was made only recently.

In 1966, Cleve Backster, director of the Backster Research Foundation, New York, connected a pair of lie detector electrodes to the leaf of a Dracaena massangeana (a hothouse ornamental) to measure its response, if any, while taking up water. Strangely, the plant's reaction was similar to that of a human subject.

Being a highly trained polygraph specialist, Backster decided to prove and verify this odd phenomenon. He decided to get a pack of matches and burn the leaf which carried the lie detector's electrodes. At this instant, when the thought of physical harm to the plant surfaced in Backster's mind, a profoundly dramatic change occurred as the recording pen suddenly went up and down in long strokes, showing that the plant was reacting. The actual leaf burning produced a less emphatic response at the trailing slope of the recording.

Since this discovery was made four years ago, Backster has expanded his experiments considerably. In one test, live shrimp were dumped, by machines only and without Backster's presence, into boiling water. Polygraph-connected plants in the room registered strong emotions during the instant of the shrimp's death. Emotional phenomena also occur in amoeba, paramecium, mold cultures, yeasts, fresh fruits and vegetables, and scrapings from the roof of the human mouth.

Backster's findings are being verified here and abroad. Other tests show that plants' supersensory abilities to communicate can't be shielded by metal — although electromagnetic waves of frequencies we're familiar with are stopped by shielding. Further tests have also shown that plants become insensitive to threats against their well-being if the thought-image isn't followed up by the acts of physical harm.

Some thinking is already being done about using plants' ability to respond to thought as if communications link in outer space. And Electro-Physics Laboratory has designed a machine that makes plant responses audible. The machine emits a dramatic audio pitch if a health plant feels a drastic threat. Wild virgin plants give some of the very best supersensory responses. These plants grow without any threats — with hardly a human thought consciously tossed their way. When such plants are threatened, growth can be disturbed severely.

Experiments with Flowers and Vegetables

Some garden favorites are good to experiment with too. The begonia is often chosen by plant experimenters using the audio response machine. With cultured plants, sensitivity wanes as they are taken from the nursery, mixed with other flowers, and mature. Most garden vegetables aren't superior performers on the polygraph or audio box. They grow under a threat from the moment they're planted with an eye on a future dinner table. They appear to have adjusted to it — by directing attention toward the seeds, roots, or other part designed to be eaten or to propagate the species. For flowers, however, growth is for beauty's sake, and the plants don't live under a threat.

Even though they may ultimately be cut, the feelings that flowers receive from most humans are ones of love, admiration, joy. We have all seen the flower gardens of those remarkable women who paint with blossoms — one picture a year.

As strange as it seems, science can measure the degree of excitement that ripples through plants as human thoughts are turned with emotion toward them. The implication is that plants form rewarding emotional attachments. During World War II in Europe, for example, people began to notice that both commercial and private gardens seemed to suffer a brief shock in growth due to the death of the owner.

Distance doesn't seem to affect this kind of sympathetic relationship. I heard of a plant experimenter who bought a plant for his son, a young soldier notorious for not writing, stationed overseas. He thought that in this way, at least, he could maintain contact with his son. Sure enough, the son on furlough appreciated the plant and wrote more frequently when back in the war zone, asking about the welfare of his plant. One day the plant drew an emphatic chart on the polygraph. Three days later the Defense Department sent a "We regret to inform you" telegram. The experimenter showed the graph to the military chaplain when he came to call.

"Praying Up A Good Crop"

This plant-to-man rapport was known to the Hopi Indians and other tribes as they danced and prayed for their crops to flourish. Rev. Franklin Loehr in the 1950's wrote a book, The Power of Prayer on Plants, in which he attempted to show scientifically that plants grow better when prayed for: "We speak the word that growth and perfect life take place here; that nothing can possibly disturb the ultimate good that is coming to these plants; that everything in the universe is directed to that growth. Nothing can stand in their way. The water on them contains everything they need for germination. The germination is perfect and it is perfect right now." Rev. Loehr found that some people are better at praying up a good crop than others. His analysis showed that those who feel emotionally involved about their plants have the best effect.

While Rev. Loehr tended to think of this as the intervention of God, the plant experimenter might think that plants have always had the potential of responding to emotions of humans or other plant or animal kin.

The Denver Post recently reported a study in which soft, quiet music produced a lusher garden for a grandmother-gardener-scientist; rock music withered plants; and no music yielded standard results. Other tests over the years have shown the beneficial effect of soft music on plant growth and vigor. Perhaps ritualized farming, such as the Indians practiced in America before the white man came, is a trial- and-error distillation of the best emotions and prayers and movements for the crops they grew.

All this is nice to read about, but remember it next season when you're sitting tired and sweaty among your thriving rows of vegetables.

It's hard not to feel that your work is appreciated.

Originally published in Organic Farming & Gardening (April 1971).

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