Do plants have ESP?

Dear Cecil: I recall reading that if you attach a polygraph machine to a tree and then project harmful thoughts at it, the machine will register “lies” or “stress.” Did I imagine this? Do trees have not only emotions but ESP? Javier Ramirez, Los Angeles


Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

Plants with feelings? Boy, there’s a scary thought. It’s bad enough dealing with the animal-rights people. Wait till we start getting guilt-tripped by People for the Ethical Treatment of Vegetables.

You undoubtedly read something about a crackpot classic from the 70s called The Secret Life of Plants, by Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird. The centerpiece of the book was the work of one Cleve Backster, an expert in lie-detector machines. On a whim in 1966, Backster hooked up a plant to a polygraph and found that it reacted sharply when he merely thought about burning one of its leaves. To test the plant’s reaction to the extinction of other forms of life, Backster dumped some brine shrimp into a pot of boiling water. The plant, obviously outraged, showed a violent response (or so Backster claimed). Ergo, plants have ESP.

Tompkins and Bird cited other research supporting Backster’s findings. One researcher claimed that plants sulked when insulted. Electronics whiz Paul Sauvin said he’d wired up a philodendron to a sensing device tuned in to a radio gizmo in a nearby car. When Sauvin beamed a telepathic message to the plant from his home two miles away, it triggered a signal that caused the car to start.

Another researcher found that an ordinary green pea registered a half-volt discharge at the moment of its death. If enough peas were wired together in series, he speculated, you could generate 500 volts, enough to cause a human to explode. Luckily, he explained, most recipes for peas don’t involve wiring them in series, so the actual danger was slight.

Other scientists, however, were unable to replicate these findings. They concluded that plant telepathy was a fantasy. Proponents responded that the plants were just refusing to cooperate with hostile researchers. Matters came to a head at a conference in 1975, when Backster admitted he’d never bothered to repeat his original experiments. He did report, however, that he had begun a promising new line of research. He’d poured milk into a container of yogurt and immediately detected a sympathetic response in another container of yogurt nearby. This greatly amused the assembled reporters, who phoned in stories about the “world’s first inter-yogurt communications system.” The conference ended in disarray, and little has been heard from the psychic-plant crowd since.

Cecil Adams

Send questions to Cecil via