Can plants hear?
Plants are aware of what is happening around them; 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. Rumors reached him that plants that were played music grew faster and better. However, he sought proof to substantiate this claim.
Singh set up a scientific lab that contained a variety of normal, healthy plants of about the same age. Working with one species at a time, he placed a device that played tones from three different instruments at a fixed distance from the plants. The results were startling: These plants grew and produced seeds at a rate above average.
After a series of experiments that 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% greater than the normal yield.
Peter Benton, who served on the staff of the Canadian Department of Agriculture, attempted to use 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.(1)
However, if these researchers thought that their efforts would increase the full compliment 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.
Let's take a look at what the Talmud has to say about the effect of sound on plants. According to the Sages:(2)
“A person who [cut the plants used for incense in the Temple] would say ‘Grind it well, grind it well!’ because the voice improves the spices.”
On the other hand, Rabbi Yochanan said that while the voice is good for plants, it can actually damage wine, which improves far better when it sits in a quiet place.
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 that through which they communicate – not only with members of their own species, but 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 sixty percent less damage from grasshoppers and caterpillars than tobacco plants 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 themselves 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.
“King Solomon, of blessed memory – to whom God 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 of this through Torah study and its commentaries and teachings.”
The Talmud also speaks of the wisdom of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, the leading sage in the Land of Israel in the first century CE:(4)
“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…”
Indeed, plants do have a language and can communicate – a fact revealed by God through His Torah millennia ago.
Notes and Sources
(1) Even though the authors of The Secret Life of Plants include the findings of Peter Benton as proof for their theories, Benton's work remains circumstantial evidence only. It is possible that the insects wreaking havoc on the Canadian corn crop were the one that listened to the recorded sounds of bats, which caused them to vacate the fields.
(2) BT Kritut 6b.
(3) Nachmanidies, in his introduction to his commentary on the Torah.
(4) BT Sukkah 28a.