Does Your Houseplant Know You’re There?

Oli and Adi report back on Paul Richens’ latest session

OLI: I had never considered plants to be remotely similar to humans. Perhaps that explained the sorry state of my houseplants – a Money Tree, and a Dragon Tree – that had withered in dark corners of my room for many months. But, on leaving Paul Richens’ workshop in March, I couldn’t help but think: plants are closer cousins to humans than I had ever imagined.

Paul & Oli's plants March17
Doctor, is there any hope? Oli’s plants see daylight at last

As Paul explained with characteristic vigour, plants sense the world in a manner not so dissimilar to our own. Of our core faculties – sight, hearing, smell, touch and taste – each can be ‘experienced’ in some parallel way by plants.

Moreover plants each generate a slight electromagnetic field, as does our own nervous system, though their ‘brain’ might be considered to lie below ground – in the dense interactions between root chemistry and soil microbes. The leaves we see above ground are simply the plant’s food-factory set up to harness the sun’s energy.

Rootbrain: a slide from Paul’s presentation, showing where the plant action really happens

That plants can hear might seem a little far-fetched. But as Paul revealed, great minds as far back as Darwin have hypothesised that plants can respond to sound. Many may be familiar with the (unproven) theory that classical music can make humans ‘smarter’ – but the fact that this too has been tested with plants was news to me.

If plants are indeed so similar to humans, it follows that they should be treated with similar care.  And this meant drastic action was required for my long neglected houseplants. Pruning, positioning and watering all followed in quick succession, optimising the light, heat – and sound! – that they would experience. The results were clear: the plants have erupted into colours that weeks ago could not be conceived of.

So let me conclude by thanking Paul and with the key lesson of the day – treat your plants as you yourself would like to be treated!

Oli Lomer

ADI: THANKS to Zoe for arranging and Paul for presenting a fascinating talk on plants and how ‘perceptive’ they are.

I KNEW SOME of the more obvious ways in which plants protect themselves from predators: thorns on roses, poison in deadly nightshade berries, and of course the good old stinging nettle. I even knew, following a trip to Peru, about the Mimosa plant which has sensitive finger-like leaves which close up when touched to ‘appear dead,’ so Darwin believed, and less appetising to would-be predators.

plant reactions
There’s more going on than you might think: a slide from Paul showing some of the things plants react to

BUT I HAD no idea about chemical signalling. Plants that are under attack, when set upon by a herd of hungry elephants, or subject to drought, can warn other nearby plants of the impending threat by releasing a chemical warning signal. This can kick start a defensive reaction in other plants – for instance to increase production of a bitter-tasting compound in their leaves to put off would-be attackers, or even to release a chemical of their own to attract their enemy’s predators.

NOT TO BE outdone, the crafty elephants have learned to eat the plants ‘upwind’, so that the airborne signals blow away from neighbouring plants, and the leaves remain sweet and edible.

Evolution never ceases to amaze me!

Adi Sayles


Where in the World is Your Plant From? Paul’s Tips on Making Your Plant at Home

CLIMATE ZONES: Tropical Rainforest ~ Tropical Grassland ~ Dry Grassland ~ Desert ~ Mediterranean ~ Temperate Forest ~ Mountain ~ Boreal Forest ~ Polar Tundra

OUR COMMON houseplants, from orchids to yuccas, come from very different environments around the world. Take advantage of the different conditions in your house to mimic the environmental origins of your plant.

ORCHIDS and SWISS CHEESE PLANTS originate in tropical rainforest, where there are low levels of sunlight under the forest canopy, and conditions are warm and humid – try your bathroom as the nearest equivalent.

YUCCAS are found across different different regions, but generally in arid conditions with plentiful sunlight, such as desert and grassland. Depending on the aspect of your house, your living room might be the best place (though we all know living rooms that are more like polar tundra…)

FERNS originate in forest and generally hate direct sunlight, so may be happiest in north-facing rooms, or at least away from sun and radiators.

DO a little research into your plants’ origins to decide what will be happiest where.

FINALLY: WATERING! The easiest way to know whether your plant needs watering is to touch the compost. Get into the habit of checking regularly. If it’s dry, water thoroughly, preferably with rainwater; if it’s wet, leave it alone. Roots need oxygen, so drowning is as bad as drought.

Paul Richens has provided moral and practical support to the Glazebrook Growers since the Kitchen Garden was just a twinkle in some of our eyes. Find out more about Paul and his gardening life at









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