• Ever wondered what your plants are ‘saying’? This device lets you listen in. (PhytlSigns / Supplied)Source: PhytlSigns / Supplied
Ever wondered what your plant thinks about you when you're not around? This new device could help unlock the answer.
Penny Sarchet

New Scientist
2 Jul 2016 - 6:36 PM  UPDATED 2 Jul 2016 - 6:36 PM

I’m concentrating at my computer when my peace lily lets out a wail. It’s a wavering electric howl that finishes as abruptly as it began. But what does it mean?

Nigel Wallbridge doesn’t know, but he wants to find out. He’s a co-founder of Vivent, the company whose device is giving my peace lily an electronic voice. His hope is that this new way of tracking plant activity will help us to understand and manage them better.

The device, called PhytlSigns, measures voltage in plants using two electrodes, one inserted into the soil and the other attached to a leaf or stem. When the speaker squeals, it means the voltage is changing: the higher the wail, the faster the change.

Plant scientists have little idea what’s actually going on inside plants when these shifts happen. “When and why a plant uses electrical signals, and their role in plant communication, is not well understood,” says Gerhard Obermeyer, a plant biophysicist at the University of Salzburg in Austria.

Signals and noise

Edward Farmer, a plant biologist at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, has attempted to verify that the signals detected by the device are really coming from the plants. In a lab, he recorded electrical events in plants in response to being wounded, then compared the signals with PhytlSigns. “The PhytlSigns device picked these signals up very well,” he says. “The device also detects smaller signals, most of which have no known biological function.”

My peace lily starts to behave oddly around mid-morning. It suddenly becomes more animated, with the speaker emitting excited whoops and wobbles. It makes me jump, and I wonder what’s going on in there. As far as I can tell, the conditions in my living room haven’t changed.

After watching some PhytlSigns demo videos, Obermeyer is not fully convinced of its measurement merits. “When sprayed with water, the plant immediately responds with voltage changes. These electrical signals are just too fast and are not generated by the plant,” he says.

Obermeyer suggests that the main signal detected by the device is electrical noise from the environment or the plant itself. “Without any useful algorithms or filtering devices, any information stays hidden in the noise,” he says.

Potted pets

Wallbridge is hoping that the appeal of listening to your house plants will grab the imagination of enough people to help fund improvements to the device and a large production run. His Kickstarter campaign, which launches today, aims to raise $76,000. “Having thousands of plant lovers observing their plants and recording their signals will mean we can go much faster in understanding plants,” says Wallbridge.

Without office chatter, I can find working from home pretty dull, and having a potted plant piping up unpredictably throughout the day certainly relieved some of this boredom. There was also something nice about the electronic squeals emitted every time I walked past the lily – as if it knew I was there.

But I don’t think I’ll keep my peace lily plugged in. After a while, the electronic noises start to bother me: it’s like having a vocally disruptive child in the room. Eventually, I’m forced to turn it off.


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