The Secret Life of Plants

Peter Tompkins & Christopher Bird

reviews-secret-life-of-plants.jpgWhen The Secret Life of Plants was published in 1973 it was very popular. It made the best sellers list and was picked up by six major book clubs.  In the ensuing decades none of the studies cited in this book have been disproved which could lead to much speculation as to what has caused such discoveries to be largely ignored. This is a book about pioneers, the people who had a stray thought, or an unexpected result, or the chance to spend enough time in the natural world to begin to hear and see.  It is a densely packed book full of names and short descriptions of experiments, hard going at times.  Taken all together these experiments present a picture of the natural world that we normally do not encounter, a world of plants that seem to behave more like people than we ever imagined. It is a world filled with radiant energy, sound waves, light and a good dash of mystery. We still do not understand the world of plants but we are invited to go along, experiment with our own plants, to make a beginning.

The Secret Life of Plants is, indeed, very secret.  They do not talk to us or discuss their state of being but leave it to us to observe them closely to determine their needs by drooping their leaves, parching their soil or discoloring and drying parts of themselves.  But, in 1966 this changed. Cleve Backster, at the time our nation's foremost lie detector examiner, had been up all night at his school for polygraph examiners and on impulse he hooked up the electrodes of a lie detector to a leaf of his dracaena plant, a tropical plant with large leaves. He poured water onto the roots of the plant to see if the plant would be affected by this and to his surprise the plant gave a reading similar to a human experiencing a short emotional stimulus. What happened next set him on a life-long quest for information and answers. He took a match, determined to burn the leaf with the electrodes on it to see if the plant would react again. But, all he had to do was picture the flame in his mind and the plant reacted, causing a large upward sweep of the detector pen.  When he merely pretended to burn the leaf it showed no reaction at all. Backster and his collaborators, all over the US, using 25 different plants, obtained similar and even more astonishing results.  This was the first time in modern times that anyone could prove that plants are not insensate, that they react on a level that we still do not completely understand to the environment and the creatures in it. He also did experiments with single celled animals, yeast and mold, various cells from the human body, blood and sperm, which, Backster found, was especially canny in that they seemed to be able to identify their owner and ignore other males. Backster postulated that, "sentience does not seem to stop at the cellular level. It may go down to the molecular, the atomic and even the subatomic." "Such observations," we are told, "seem to imply that some sort of total memory may go down to the single cell, and by inference that the brain may be just a switching mechanism, not necessarily a storage organ."

Another researcher, Marcel Vogel, who made his name in inventing the red color seen on television, fluorescent crayons and psychedelic colors to name a few well known items, also did experiments on plants.  He had the same successes as Backster in wiring up plants for communication. In his many experiments with plant and human interaction he found that the was doing with the plants required that the "experimenters must become part of their experiments." Vogel found that the plants responded to the thoughts of people whom he brought into their presence, one philodendron even sulking (refusing to give any response) when a visitor admitted that he had compared that plant unfavorably to the one he had at home.  His plants picked up and responded to another man, a physicist, who was thinking hard about a problem and in confirmation told Vogel that he had s topped thinking about the problem when the plant's recording indicated that he had.  Talk of sex in the plant's presence caused especially wild gyrations of the needle. Vogel believed that the response of human skin to the lie detector was a galvanic skin response but as plants have no skin he coined the term, psycho-galvanic response, or PGR.  He said that the response exists in plants and in all living forms.

Pierre Paul Savin, an electronics specialist, decided he would construct an experiment mentioned by Backster in a television interview. He taught a philodendron to turn a little train on and off by remembering the sensation of a galvanic shock. The plant responded to his memory through the switch. (Remember that I am condensing this experiment for the sake of space).  Savin also wired his plants to an oscilloscope, tape recorders and telephones allowing him to monitor his plants long distance. He also decided to see if plants responded as well to positive emotion and one long weekend with his girlfriend found that the plants response went off the charts at a specific moment I shall not elaborate upon. As Backster and Vogel had found, plants respond best to people with whom they have formed a personal bond  and this led the US army to try to devise a way of using plants that were not bonded to a specific person to measure the emotional response of people.

The Soviets researchers have made many of the same discoveries of the ability to communicate with plants and plants with us. Using instruments of thirty and more years ago, which are not as sensitive as those of today, they were able to detect minute amounts of energy, they found that plants can become exhausted from too much sunlight,and they can be chloroformed and revived in the same manner as humans.  V.G. Karamanov , the director of the Laboratory of Biocybernetics and Agrophysics in Leningrad said when asked if he had discovered anything 'new', said: " Nothing of the sort! That plants are able to perceive the surrounding world is a truth as old as the world itself. Without perception, adaptation does not and cannot exist. If plants had no sense organs and didn't have a means of transmitting and processing information with their own language and memory, they would inevitably perish."

That we still have no good idea what plants are capable of was illustrated by an experiment with corn.  Soviet  researchers placed some corn in glass pots to grow and did not water one of the plants for several weeks but it did not die. Somehow water was transferred from the watered plants to the dry one. (Or the cleaning lady watered it---but no, the soil was parched for the entire time).  In England, Dr. A.R. Bailey found that if he watered some plants in a greenhouse and not others the unwatered plants reacted when he watered the others although there was no connection between the two groups. There aren't any good, scientifically proven reasons why these things happen.

These Soviet scientists faced the same up-hill battle with their government as those in the US have and still do. Despite numerous and varied experiments proving all manner of hitherto unknown properties of plants many, especially those who have money interests in industrial agriculture, have worked hard to pour scorn on this work even to the extent of having computers and research files confiscated by the government.

The Most August of the Pioneers

Most of us have never heard of Sir Jagadis Chandra Bose, scientist, teacher and inventor, before Marconi, of the method of transmitting radio signals wirelessly through the air. At the Indian Temple of Science there are glass cases filled with the instruments he invented to examine plants in their minutest detail, magnifying these processes up to a million times. After finding that his coherer (a primitive form of radio wave detector), became less sensitive if continuously used but returned to normal  after a period of rest, in what must be considered a great leap of faith at the time as he had little knowledge of the quantum realm, he decided that there was perhaps no boundary line between living organisms  and non-living metals. He found that the curves produced by warmed magnetic oxide resembled those of  muscles. Other experiments supported this conjecture. He also found that all of the characteristics  of the responses of animal tissues were also found in plants. Bose wrote a number of books which delineated his experiments in detail so that others could duplicate them.  He demonstrated the characteristics of nerves in plants as it a reflex arc like the one that we use to pull our fingers off a hot stove, he found that plants shudder at the moment of death, he found that too much CO2 could suffocate plants, they get drunk on alcoholic beverages as we do. Bose said: "…we should abandon all our preconceptions, most of which are afterward found to be found to be absolutely groundless and contrary to facts. The final appeal must be made to the plant itself and no evidence should be accepted unless it bears the plant's own signature."Carl Sagan said that we are made of star stuff and indeed, Sir Bose might well agree with him.

Sex in the Garden

What would be a discussion of plants without mentioning the birds and the bees? That plants have sex was a new idea at the end of the 17th century. R.J Camerarius published his book De Sexum Plantorum Epistula in 1694  shocking everybody and causing a generation of heated controversy. But plants have all the organs we do and they are used the same way. Our authors lament the use stigma, style, filament and anther for these organs preferring vulva, vagina, penis and glans in that order for the same organs. How much more interesting, they say, if children were informed that each strand of silk on a cob of corn were an individual vagina ready to suck up a  single grain of pollen or that one capsule of tobacco contains 2500 seeds which require 2500 impregnations.  Well, I find that fascinating! Camerarius set the stage for Carl Linnaeus who was dead set on cataloguing every plant based on its parts. Many found this system dry and not at all descriptive of the natural world but Linnaeus's taxonomy has lasted to this day.

There were several people whose vision of the natural world was more poetic.   Goethe, whom the world knows as a poet and the author of "Faust" wrote extensively on the world of plants  and saw the natural world as being moved by opposite polar forces which manifest as light and dark, or plus and minus in electricity, or oxidation and reduction in chemistry. Gustav Fetchner also wrote extensively about the spiritual essence that lies behind the material form of plants. Like Bose, Fetchner believed that plants had nervous systems and that the psyche of plants is no more linked to their  systems than is that of human beings. Both are diffuse but separate  from the organs they direct.  "Why, he wondered, should we believe that a plant is any less aware of hunger or thirst than an animal"? Charles Darwin, after publishing his , "On the Origin of Species", spent the rest of his life studying the behavior of plants and the effects of crossbreeding them which produces the hybrid vigor we know today. Luther Burbank, the great plant breeder,  talked to the plants he worked with, saying that they might not know what his words meant but that he was convinced that by some telepathy they could comprehend his meaning. Like Burbank, George Washington Carver made his discoveries in ways that defied logic. While he is known for his work on peanuts and was one of the first to speak against monoculture grape, he extracted dyes from plants for fabrics, he produced shampoos, petroleum substitutes, wood stains, and basic foods from both the peanut and the sweet potato and, paper from the Southern pine tree which is now a multi-million dollar industry for the South. He spent his boyhood wandering in fields and forests and experimenting with plants and said that his inspiration came to him from nature.  He once asked the peanut, "Why did God make you?" He received the answer, "You have three things to go by, compatibility, temperature and pressure." Working day and night for a week he subjected the peanut to numbers of tests, finding that the peanut had actually seven different oils, and coming up with two dozen different products at the end of that week.

The Music of the Spheres

In 1950, Dr. T.C. Singh began a series of experiments with music and dance on the behavior and production in plants.  He broadcast music via loudspeaker to six varieties of rice growing in different villages and found that he was able to get harvests 25 to 60 percent higher than the regional average. Around the same time a Canadian engineer and farmer broadcast Bach to a test plot of wheat and got a harvest 66 percent higher than the average with heavier seeds. Since the wheat was growing on an inferior soil he concluded that the music was as good as nutrients.  Since then numerous experiments have been done with music and plants and some of the findings are quite strange. For instance, one researcher, Dorothy Retellack,  found that the tone 'F' on the scale if broadcast continuously for eight hours per day killed all the plants, dry and dead, within two weeks but the same tone broadcast to a control group for three hours a day which were doing somewhat better than a third control group which had been left in silence.   In another experiment,  she broadcast a classical radio station to some squashes and a hard rock station to some others of the same species.  In one of the glass cases, the squashes grew toward the classical music source and in the other case the squashes grew away from the source of the hard rock even trying to climb the sides of the glass case to get away from the sound.

That plants respond to a variety of stimuli cannot be disputed.  Besides sending us messages in the minute amounts of radiation, they also seem to respond to particles we cannot codify as in Backster's experiments with the electroencephalogram.  They respond to music, voice  and electromagnetism. In the 1720's,  a French writer and astronomer, Mairan, noticed that his mimosa plant closed its leaves when the sun went down.  He put the plant in a closet but the plant did not close its leaves until, again, the sun went down.  The plants, he concluded, must be able to sense the sun without being able to "see" it.  Two and a half centuries later, Dr. John Ott, the head of the Environmental  Health and Light Institute in Sarasota, FL, took six mimosa plants down a 650 foot mine shaft at noon. The plans promptly closed their leaves.  No one knew why. It was found that seeds sprouted faster and the plants grew faster if they were electrified, transpiration also increased.  Scarlett verbena and some oriental poppies have been seen to flash at one another.  Some way electricity and electro-magnetic energy was involved but to this day, although we use electricity and electro-magnetic energy in a myriad ways we still have no real understanding of what it is and how it works.  What we do know, from many experiments over many decades, is that if we electrify growing plants, we will get better results, sweeter and more succulent strawberries, wheat with heavier seed heads and compliments from the bakers who used it to make bread.  It is intriguing that the current must run in one direction, with the growth of the plant.   If it is reversed, the plant shrivels.  Tomato plants hung with silver Christmas tree bulbs and fruit trees hung with bright metallic pieces had earlier fruit set and better harvests.

Dr. John Ott, the inventor of time lapse photography, did many experiments with radiation on plants finding that plants and animals behave in strange ways when subjected to television radiation. Bean plants in front of a TV had roots that grew up out of the soil and when he put a TV in his greenhouse, 15 feet  away from breeding rats they produced litters of only one or kits. It took six months for the rats to return to normal breeding patterns. Remember that Dr. Ott did his experiments on televisions from an earlier era. The authors do not make this point but we must wonder if TV sets of today emit the same harmful radiation. With the constant bathing in radiation we all experience today and the strange increase in what used to be rare diseases perhaps it would behoove all of us to do more research on the effects of radiation, the good and the bad.

In 1959 Andre Voisin published his seminal work, "Soil, Grass, and Cancer", in which he said that we have forgotten that our bodies are made of soil and all health comes from the soil. He provided copious examples that by itself, chemical analysis of food is insufficient to evaluate the essence of the food.  "I think," Voisin wrote, "that it is not merely a question of healing the animal or man stricken by disease, it is necessary to heal the soil so as not to have to heal the animal or man."  He spoke about the overuse of chemical fertilizers over 40 years ago.

A number of researchers, experts in soil and plant chemistry and animal health, were coming to the conclusion that diseases of plants, animals and humans were caused not by disease organisms but by poor and incomplete nutrition.  They were finding that healthy plants,  farm animals and some groups of people like the famous Hunza people simply did not get sick.  There is a difference between true health and just not being currently sick and organisms simply did not come down with diseases, (or get infestations of insect pests) if they had optimum health.  Remember that this book was written in 1973 and there has been much research done since then. The startling thing is that this idea is just now becoming common knowledge -- and rather slowly at that.

The decades after WWII brought many changes to American agriculture, unfortunately most of them were detrimental to the soil and to everything eating the plants grown therein. The use of pesticides, especially DDT which entered the germ of the seed and could not be removed, increased dramatically as did the use of artificial fertilizers.  Many soils, which had been mined of their nutrients were worthless as farm land and could be farmed only with the application of these elements poisonous to the soil. J.I. Rodale started his magazine, "Organic Gardening" and then the magazine, "Prevention", in which he showed thousands of people how to grow nutritious food. The lengths that the United States government and the chemical agriculture interests went to lie to the American people reads like a criminal rap sheet.   Rodale was a victim of this witch hunt and had to fight in court , spending a quarter of a million dollars to win the battle to continue publishing his health promoting magazine.

One of the more interesting faculties of plants is their ability to create minerals where none were before. Seeds sprouting in distilled water have more minerals in them than before sprouting and, of course, they could not get them from the water. Pierre Baranger, a professor of organic chemistry at the Ecole Polytechnic in Paris, experimented for many years and finally had to come to the conclusion, and announced it to the world in January 1959, that plants transmute minerals from one to another.  By 1963 Beranger had incontestably proved that legumes sprouted in a manganese salt solution transmuted manganese into iron where none had been before. Places on the earth that have been farmed for millennia should be depleted of certain elements but they are not and Barenger claims that it is because the plants are transmuting abundant elements into the rarer ones for their use.

Of great interest to our organization is the findings of Andre Simonton, that foods radiate at certain wave lengths depending upon a number of factors, one being the freshness of the food, another being the vitality of the food. Understanding that every particle down to a photon of light has a specific wave length and that these minute wave lengths can be measured by modern methods lets us qualify  foods in real time. Fresh milk measures at 6,500 angstroms but loses 40% of its radiation at the end of 12 hours and 90% at the end of 24. Pasteurization killed the radiation completely. The same is true of fruit juices and garlic juice, when Pasteurized, coagulates like blood and has no radiation.  Frozen foods retain their radiation when thawed, foods in the refrigerator tend to acquire more radiation as they mature and dehydrated foods are re-vitalized when rehydrated.  Water has the same property. Some water, as that at Lourdes, radiate at 156.000 angstroms  and, taken away in a bottle, eight years later still measures 78.000 angstroms. Some vegetables have higher radiation when raw but some, like potatoes, are higher when cooked.  It will be possible, we already have the technology, to be able to measure the vitality of a food in a moment.  Quoting directly from The Secret Life of Plants, "Of meats, the only one makes Simoneton's list of edible foods is freshly smoked ham. Freshly killed pork radiates at 6,500, as does all animal meat; but once it has been soaked in salt and hung over a wood fire, its radiance increases to 9,500 to 10,000 angstroms." He wondered if the health properties of various herbal remedies might be due more to their radiant energy than to their chemical properties. This lead to Edward Bach and his flower remedies which are homeopathic in nature.  The base of homeopathy is that the essence of the flower, or root, or bark, is transferred to the water or alcohol it is dissolved in. That is to say, the radiant frequency is transferred.  We already know that water can be made to radiate and this property is not lost even at the million to one dilutions of the homeopathic pharmacy. Specifically, the effect of the plant infusion must mimic the symptoms of the patient.

Radionics which is a method of healing people or plants from afar by matching radiation frequencies with that of the illness (cancer, perhaps) has been denounced by the US government as a pseudoscience. Modern scientists now believe that radionics devices are useful only in concentrating a person's natural dowsing ability.  One man, Galen Hieronymus, using a radionic amplifier on some corn worms, found that after three hours of treatment , ten minutes per hour, two of the corn worms were reduced to mush and all that remained of the others were "wet spots" on the ears of corn. Stunned by the lethality of the device he determined not to reveal the makeup of his device.  Radionics has been used to heal but it does point out that we all need to be cautious with any method.  Sometimes a little is good and more is just too much. 

The last chapter in the book is about the Findhorn community.  After WWII, Peter Caddy took his wife and children and settled in a caravan park on the shores of Findhorn Bay in northern Scotland, a barren rubble heap of bad soil and discarded trash. Today it is a garden of Eden and has spread to a number of places in Scotland.  Hundreds of people go there every year to stay, to work, to learn and return to their own homes determined to restore and revitalize their soil, lives and communities.  The story of how Findhorn was created, literally out of nothing, is on the internet. Just enter Findhorn into your search engine.   Our authors include it in their book because over the years, the founders of  the Findhorn community and their followers have created. It shouldn't have worked, the soil was so poor, they had no resources, the weather left much to be desired, but using many of the strange and wonderful things described in The Secret Life of Plants, including the intention to be open and listening to what the natural world had to say, to help the plants become what they had the potential to be, these people really did create a garden Eve would have been happy to return to.  After all, I think that our authors are asking the same of us, in the best way we can, become part of the Creation.