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I Can’t Shut Up About ‘Talking’ Trees

Photo-Illustration: The Cut. Photo: Lizzo via TikTok

I will do anything TikTok tells me to. Put milk in my soda? Okay! Drink a tall glass of seltzer and balsamic vinegar? Why not! Now that TikTok’s newfound passion is talking to trees, I, too, must commune with nature.

It began, as most TikToks do, with a bold claim. “The tree in my yard can talk and move,” TikToker @Bria_Music captioned her video. Say no more, Bria. I’m in. In her now-viral TiKTok, she walks up to the tree in question and says, “If you can hear me, touch my shoulder.” Then, a branch moves upward, seemingly on its own, grazing its leaves against her shoulder. After the branch settles back down, she asks the tree to touch her shoulder again, and again, the branch raises up and brushes her shoulder. Amazing! Incredible! I require no further proof or explanation!

This has inspired other TikToks in which people to talk to trees, houseplants, and neighborhood foliage and see if they “respond.” There are videos of trees touching hats and leaves tickling arms. Even Lizzo asked a plant on her patio to touch her hand. It does, but this is less evidence that plants can communicate with people and more proof of the power that Lizzo holds over all living things.

Speaking to plants is nothing new. Prince Charles has been doing it for decades. He’s said it’s “very important to talk to them; they respond.” (However, Prince Charles is also a practicing magician, so I wouldn’t trust his word alone.) There have been plenty of studies on whether talking to plants helps them grow, though the results have been dubious at best. A small 2009 study from Britain’s Royal Horticultural Society found that tomato plants grew two inches taller when spoken to by a female voice rather than a male voice. (Feminism win!!) An anti-bullying campaign from Ikea that suggested plants fed compliments grew better than those that were given insults. (Capitalism win?) In an old episode of Mythbusters, plants that were played music or recordings of human voices grew better than those that weren’t played any sound. The plants that grew the most? The ones that listened to “intense death metal.” Still, some experts suggest talking to plants likely impacts humans’ behavior more than plant growth.

As for plants talking back, there is some evidence that plants respond to sound stimulus. In 2019, scientists found that plants that were played the sound of munching caterpillars produced chemicals that would deter the insects from eating its leaves. In another study, plants that were exposed to the sound of buzzing bees produced more sugar in their nectar. But what about the dulcet tones of … my human voice? I decided to see for myself.

I will admit there are plenty of plants that look like they could talk if they wanted to: willow trees for obvious reasons, sunflowers, snapdragons (but only when they die). However, I don’t have access to any of those, so I had to make do with the plants in my backyard. (I have indoor succulents, but we aren’t on speaking terms.) I decided to talk to a nondescript bush because it looked more approachable than my black walnut tree. I didn’t record the process to give the bush some privacy and to avoid further judgment from my neighbors.

“Hello, tree. I mean, bush,” I began. Already off to a bad start. I introduced myself and disclosed that I would be taking notes about our conversation. Transparency is a key in all communication, with flora or otherwise. “Okay, um … if you can hear me, touch my hand,” I said confidently before clarifying that this was purely platonic. I waited patiently before asking again, in case the bush didn’t hear me the first time. And, folks, you won’t believe this … nothing happened.

Now, I have three explanations for why the bush didn’t respond. (1) The bush doesn’t speak English, (2) the bush is a little shy, and (3) the most plausible explanation: The bush is mad at me.

But don’t let this deter you from starting up a conversation with our own trees. Talking to plants is harmless, at least to the plants, and undeniably wholesome. Tell your herbs they’re doing a great job. Wish your maple tree a lovely day. Do you have a particularly stubborn weed? Have you tried asking it to go away? Couldn’t hurt!

Finally, I would like to end by speaking directly to my plant readers: Tree, if you can hear me, share this post.

I Can’t Shut Up About ‘Talking’ Trees