An experiment by furniture company IKEA has gone viral over the last week.
They asked a group of school children to "bully" one plant while being kind to another, and took recordings of the children's insults. It's not clear precisely what they said to the plant, but think along the lines of "you little leafy bastard" or "you thicko photosynthesizing green-stemmed twat".
One real recording used, perhaps the most cutting of all, asks the plant "are you even really alive?" and another said, "you're not even green".
For the other plant, they recorded compliments, like "I like your stamen, that's a nice stamen" or "I wish I could turn sunlight into food like you can, that's very clever".
Over the course of a month, these insults or compliments were then played to the plants.
At the end of the month, the plant that had been played hurtful things like "even vegans think it's fine to eat you, you emotionless little green wanker" looked different from the complimented plant. The bullied plant had wilted, while the complimented plant was healthy.
The Internet seems to have taken this as confirmation that plants can hear what's being said, and get sad and even die when you aren't nice to them.
IKEA haven't exactly been helpful in dispelling this idea.
"Plants have feelings, just like people," they write on their YouTube video. "So, what happens when you feed one plant with compliments and another with negative remarks?"
In the background of the experiment, a sign says "plants have the same senses as humans", which sounds like bullshit until you read the note underneath saying "based on a study by Dr Masaru Emoto on the molecular structure of water under influence of thoughts and vibrations", which absolutely confirms it as bullshit. Emoto's studies were pseudoscientific at best, and claimed, amongst other things, that prayer could cleanse polluted water.
So, what does the experiment actually prove? Basically nothing.
It might be a fun way to teach children about bullying and a good ad, but it certainly doesn't have any science to back it up. Calling a plant a "good for nothing pollen-creating shit" has not been proven to cause it to wilt. This would take a much larger, controlled experiment than IKEA, we suspect, are willing to conduct.
However, there is evidence that plants react to sounds (or vibrations), and they have even been shown to pollinate in reaction to bee buzzing.
“Sound vibrations could trigger a response of the plant via mechanoreceptor," Michael Schöner, a biologist at the University of Greifswald, told Scientific American. "These could be very fine, hairy structures, anything that could work like a membrane."
There is no evidence to date that plants know when they're being called a dick, that they understand what it means, or that it would cause them to die. We'd hazard a guess that there will never be evidence for this.