Though their cries for help fall on deaf ears, it turns out plants make tiny noises when stressed and we are shewk

Heather Arndt Anderson  – December 9, 2019 | Updated December 18, 2019

You might want to sit down for this. Are you sitting? Okay, good. I don’t know how to tell you this, but it turns out that plants can make sounds.

No longer satisfied with quiet dominion, plants have apparently evolved the ability to passive-aggressively whisper their displeasure at us. Researchers at Tel Aviv University in Israel have just revealed that they have recorded the tiny, plaintive screams of tomato and tobacco plants, and I’m just not sure we’re ready for this information. Vegans, I’m so sorry; I can’t imagine what you’re going through right now. 

This plant would like to speak to your manager. (Photo by Image Source)

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If a tree falls in the woods, and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound? The answer is yes, and that sound is “HELP ME, I’VE FALLEN AND I CAN’T GET UP”—only it’s at a register that human ears, mercifully, can’t detect. It’s uncertain which other organisms are able to hear the bitter whinging of thirsty plants, but the scientists posit that a moth, for example, will perhaps think twice about laying its eggs on a plant that is audibly signaling that it’s too weak to be nutritious for baby caterpillars and/or will keep baby caterpillars awake with its incessant griping. 

Scientists put plants in an echo-proof box equipped with microphones and recorded ultrasonic sounds emitted by plants being cut or water-stressed (plus some healthy plants and empty pots for controls). The test plants complained more often about being too dry than about being cut, which makes sense, since plants die more readily from water stress than having a leaf snipped. Tomato plants also bellyached more about drought stress than did tobacco (35 sounds per hour compared to 11), though tobacco hated being cut more than being dry (15 cries per hour). It seems that the plants emit an initial “YOWCH”-type sound when being cut, but get over it pretty quickly. 

“What’re you doing with those? C’mon, Cheryl, put down the shears. Cheryl. CHERYYYLLL!” (Photo by Sutthiwat Srikhrueadam)

Do plants have anything nice to say? Unclear; scientists found that plants are pretty quiet when they’re happy, opting to save their voices for the airing of grievances. As the days without water passed in the study, the kvetching built up to a crescendo until the plant begins to dry out a week later, during which time perhaps the plant’s voice is too parched to keep up the keening, and the plant figures it may as well just die, not that you’d care.

Next time you’re in the garden, be glad that you can’t hear the deafening din of plants. (Now’d also be a good time to think about finally installing that irrigation system, yeah?)