Say Aloe to My Little Frond

Roman Mars [00:00:01] Everyone loves finding great deals, and there’s some amazing deals at T-Mobile. T-Mobile believes customers deserve even more without paying more. They’re always looking for ways to give customers more bang for their buck. Their plans are packed with incredible perks. T-Mobile customers get over $225 of value and benefits every single month on their max family plans. They have so many great things like travel benefits and streaming services, like Netflix, all included. And with Netflix, you can check out Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio, airing this December. Check out the amazing trailer. Get more for the holidays now at T-Mobile with over $225 worth of benefits every single month, including Netflix. This holiday season, get used to getting even more at T-Mobile. $225 based on retail value of available monthly benefits with max family plans, like Netflix standard 2-screen with up to $15.49 value per month. See details at It’s time to reboot your credit card with Apple Card. Now through December 25th, get 5% daily cash back on products at Apple with a new Apple card, including a new iPhone 14 or Apple Watch Ultra. At everywhere else, Apple Card gives you up to 3% unlimited daily cash back on everything you buy. Apply now in the wallet app on the iPhone and start using it right away. Subject to credit approval, monthly financing through Apple Card monthly installments is ineligible to earn 5% back. Additional exclusions apply. Valid only on qualifying U.S. purchases for new Apple Card customers who open an account and use it from December 1st to 25th, 2022 at Apple. Visit apple.go/savefive for more details. This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars. The other day, the writer Anne Helen Petersen was watching Martin Scorsese’s 1993 film The Age of Innocence. 

Anne Helen Petersen [00:01:54] First of all, The Age of Innocence is low key my favorite Scorsese, which is blasphemy. But I just love the movie a lot. 

Roman Mars [00:02:02] That is a bold choice, Anne Helen Petersen, and I am here for it. 

Anne Helen Petersen [00:02:07] You know, people are always like, “Oh, but all of his films are so violent.” And The Age of Innocence is an emotionally violent movie. So, it’s just operating on a different register. It’s sublime. I love it so much. 

Emmett FitzGerald [00:02:18] The Age of Innocence looks really different from any of Scorsese’s other films. It’s not set in some gritty criminal underworld. It doesn’t have Robert De Niro in it. It looks almost like a Merchant Ivory film–a Gilded Age costume drama set in New York. 

Roman Mars [00:02:34] That’s producer Emmett FitzGerald. 

Emmett FitzGerald [00:02:36] It’s the kind of film that you watch to get lost in the rose gardens, the frilly dresses, and the wallpaper drawing rooms. But on this particular rewatch, Anne noticed something else about the set design that really stood out. The houses were packed to the gills with plants. 

Anne Helen Petersen [00:02:56] I was so fascinated by just how prevalent houseplants were throughout the entire film and actually serve as a really important backdrop for several pivotal scenes. 

Emmett FitzGerald [00:03:08] Throughout the movie, the characters wander between giant ferns and palms–the kinds of plants that you might find in a swanky boutique hotel today. In fact, when I see the plants in The Age of Innocence, they look almost anachronistic to me. Like, you can imagine the production designer buying them at Lowe’s. 

Anne Helen Petersen [00:03:26] Well, I think oftentimes people don’t think that anyone other than us had houseplants somehow, right? There’s just this assumption that somehow houseplants are a creation of contemporary society, contemporary decorating, you know, like something that is as new as IKEA, say. 

Emmett FitzGerald [00:03:45] And I mean, it’s true that houseplants are having a moment right now. In 2020, 66% of people in the U.S. owned at least one houseplant. And plant sales have skyrocketed during the pandemic. Meanwhile, Instagram accounts like Houseplant Club have over a million followers. And over the past decade, there’s been a steady stream of think pieces offering explanations for the emergence of this new obsession–from the rise of wellness culture to the fact that more young people are living in cities. But one thing that these articles don’t usually do is put our current houseplant boom in historical perspective because while millennials may have perfected the art of plant parenting, Anne is here to tell you this is not the first-time people have gotten completely obsessed with houseplants. 

Anne Helen Petersen [00:04:37] There’s so much history packed into this unassuming artifact that’s in your home. And so, I had been thinking a little bit about what could that history be? 

Roman Mars [00:04:47] If you think about it, the entire idea of the houseplant is pretty bizarre. We take plants that grow naturally in one place, and then we move them halfway around the world to an entirely different place with a different, often inhospitable climate. And then we keep them alive by growing them in potting soil that we probably bought at the Home Depot. 

Emmett FitzGerald [00:05:06] Which, you know, raises a lot of questions, like, for one: why? We’ll get to that later. But also, when–as in, when did we start engaging in this weird ritual? 

Roman Mars [00:05:16] Humans have been growing plants indoors for a long time, especially herbs and flowers. Ancient Egyptian, Greek, and Middle Eastern societies all had potted plants. The Chinese were growing ornamental plants indoors as far back as 1,000 B.C. But the rise of the global houseplant economy that we are familiar with today really begins during the age of European imperialism. 

Anne Helen Petersen [00:05:39] I mean, they really began with the start of colonization. So, you have these powers in Europe who are going out to the corners of the known world and encountering so many new flora and fauna. 

Roman Mars [00:05:56] Also, of course, people. But for the purposes of this story, we’re going to stay focused on the plants. 

Emmett FitzGerald [00:06:01] This was the Enlightenment era. And European scientists were obsessed with cataloging and collecting all of the new species that they encountered. 

Roman Mars [00:06:09] And so on many of these expeditions, they would actually bring along people whose entire job was to hunt for plants. Here’s interior design historian Penny Sparke in Kingston University in London. 

Penny Sparke [00:06:21] The plant hunters themselves were sort of intrepid people, often hired by the scientists, or by kings, or by the very wealthy who wanted plants brought back. They just went and hunted out in the wild and, you know, up mountains, into forests, into jungles–bringing back everything they could. And the more exotic, the better. 

Anne Helen Petersen [00:06:38] They put them in boxes and transported them over many months’ long voyages back to the cold climate of Europe. 

Roman Mars [00:06:46] But the transportation part proved to be a bit of a challenge. Unsurprisingly, the plants didn’t do so well on ships floating in the ocean for weeks at a time. 

Anne Helen Petersen [00:06:55] And they would just die on the way. Always. 

Emmett FitzGerald [00:06:58] People in this period believed that plants needed fresh air to survive, but on a sea voyage they ended up just dying from exposure to the elements. By one estimate, only one in 1000 live plant specimens would survive the journey back to Europe. 

Penny Sparke [00:07:13] And so all sorts of experiments were undertaken to try and find ways of preserving the plants. And one of the most successful was something called a Wardian case, designed by somebody called Nathaniel Ward. 

Roman Mars [00:07:27] The Wardian case was like a small portable greenhouse. The plants were sealed off from the outside world and got their water through the cycle of evaporation and condensation. 

Penny Sparke [00:07:37] It was an enclosed case that actually allowed moisture to go back into the plant and keep it alive. 

Anne Helen Petersen [00:07:43] And essentially what it did was create this moist environment inside that approximated a jungle. 

Roman Mars [00:07:53] In 1833 two Wardian cases were sent to Australia, and they returned a year later full of plants. Ward wrote, “These plants were not once watered during the whole voyage. Yet on their arrival at the docks, they were in the most healthy and vigorous condition.” 

Emmett FitzGerald [00:08:09] From that point on, the Wardian case became a key tool for colonial plant traders. But keeping the plants alive once they got back to Europe also proved to be a challenge. They were evolved to grow in steamy jungles and parched deserts. They weren’t going to thrive in cold, rainy countries like England or France on their own. And so European gardeners needed to build indoor spaces that would approximate the climates of India, Australia, and the Caribbean. 

Anne Helen Petersen [00:08:35] And so they created botanical gardens all over Europe. And some parts of them were private and used for more scientific purposes. And some parts of them were public and open to anyone who could browse this array–this demonstration of empire and of conquest in a very secure and safe environment. 

Emmett FitzGerald [00:08:58] The plants were called “exotics.” And the European public flocked to botanical gardens to marvel at all of these strange new species that they had never seen before. 

Anne Helen Petersen [00:09:08] Think about a palm arriving, if all you’ve ever experienced really in terms of trees is deciduous trees and evergreen trees. Then you have a palm. Like, “What is this? How does it live?” 

Emmett FitzGerald [00:09:19] Botanical Gardens also provided an opportunity for Europeans to see what the natural world might have looked like in the colonies. They were almost like imperial theme parks. And growing these tropical plants in Europe was a demonstration of conquest and control. 

Anne Helen Petersen [00:09:35] And so what you do with these wild plants–even just the idea of calling them “wild” and “exotic”–you bring them back and you civilize them. You put them in a pot, and then you keep them indoors. 

Roman Mars [00:09:51] Public botanical gardens were many houseplants’ first step in their journey out of the jungle. The next step brought them closer to the home itself. 

Emmett FitzGerald [00:09:59] The European aristocracy grew so enchanted with tropical exotics that they wanted greenhouses of their own. So, they started building conservatories on their estates. 

Roman Mars [00:10:09] And as indoor plants became fashionable, status symbols, the desire to have your very own conservatory filtered down to the middle classes. 

Emmett FitzGerald [00:10:17] Then in the middle of the 19th century, England got rid of a really high tax on glass. And that made conservatories available to a much wider swath of the population. 

Penny Sparke [00:10:28] So whereas the wealthy estates–country estates–would have greenhouses and conservatories on the land, a middle-class suburban home would want its own little conservatory. And increasingly, these conservatories were attached to houses. They weren’t situated at the green house, at the back of the garden. They were actually attached. 

Emmett FitzGerald [00:10:51] This was all happening at the dawn of urbanization and industrialization in Europe as lots of people moved off the land and into the city for the very first time. 

Penny Sparke [00:11:01] And that was the first moment, I think, where a generation of people had left the land–left living within nature and gone into the urban setting. They realized something was missing. So, they had a huge loss–a sense of loss. 

Emmett FitzGerald [00:11:16] And these conservatories were a way to try to deal with that loss and bring nature back into people’s lives. 

Roman Mars [00:11:24] On a traditional country estate. The gardener would have been a man. But in the city, indoor plant care fell to women. This was happening at the same time as the rise of separate spheres ideology. Men were expected to go out into the city and work. 

Penny Sparke [00:11:38] And the woman is the person left at home to do nurturing of children but also plants. 

Emmett FitzGerald [00:11:45] Victorian women shared scientific knowledge and plant care tips in these advice books that circulated widely at the time. The writers of these books were almost like the Instagram plant influencers of their day. They would teach people the scientific names of plants, how often to water them, how to make sure they got enough light. 

Roman Mars [00:12:03] Indoor plants got more and more popular in this period until they eventually outgrew the conservatory and moved inside the house. 

Penny Sparke [00:12:10] Yes, it is the gradual infiltration of the home. Again, the advice books would tell you there’s ways in which you can actually bring plants into your drawing room, your parlor. You can construct so many containers, or shelving systems, or window boxes, hanging baskets. There was a whole industry of containers, really. 

Emmett FitzGerald [00:12:37] The Victorian period was a high watermark for houseplants. And they became essential components of interior design. 

Penny Sparke [00:12:44] In the Victorian period, they became incredibly important elements of the interior “scheme,” if you like–interior décor. 

Roman Mars [00:12:51] The Victorians famously had an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach to interior design. 

Emmett FitzGerald [00:12:57] There’s a phrase I love that’s sometimes used to describe the esthetics from this period–“Horror vacui”–which means the fear of empty space. 

Penny Sparke [00:13:05] You know, we used the word “clutter” a lot about these interiors–I don’t like to think of being cluttered. I think they were just very, very full–full of furniture, full of decorations, full of plants, full of everything. 

Emmett FitzGerald [00:13:18] Victorians brought the unruly jungle inside and filled up their homes with many of the same varieties of houseplants that we have today. 

Penny Sparke [00:13:27] The fern was incredibly popular. And of course, the palms. So, the palm and the fern are perhaps the two dominant ones. And the fern was the poor man’s palm, really, because palms were exotic and very expensive. Ferns could be found indigenously. 

Roman Mars [00:13:42] Ferns were sometimes grown in the fireplace during the summer months. Ivies were draped across walls, over doorways, and around window frames. And the Victorians even designed furniture for their plants. 

Penny Sparke [00:13:54] One example was a palm table in which you would have a hole. This would be a large dining table. There’d be a hole in the middle, and the plant pot would be on the floor beneath the hole with the fronds of the leaves coming up through the hole. So, it’s sort of almost as if it’s sprouting from the table. 

Emmett FitzGerald [00:14:13] All of this meant the Victorians had a remarkably intimate relationship with their plants. Penny Sparke read a lot of these advice books for her research, and she noticed that people talked about their plants very lovingly–almost like they were sentient. 

Penny Sparke [00:14:27] A lot was written about the role of plants as being not just decorative, but also almost being like human beings. They were seen as companions. Particularly to lonely people or bereaved people, they were seen to actually be almost substitute human beings, a bit like, I suppose, pets. 

Emmett FitzGerald [00:14:46] I recently saw a tweet that said, “Plants are the new pets, and pets are the new kids,” which is… That’s a good tweet. It’s funny. It rings true. But I don’t know how new any of it is. I actually think the Victorians were the first plant parents. 

Roman Mars [00:15:02] The Victorian Houseplant mania lasted into the early 20th century. But like all trends, it eventually cycled out of fashion. 

Anne Helen Petersen [00:15:10] The way that I think of houseplants now is in waves almost because I think a wave is a great way to think of, like, growing in popularity and then ebbing in popularity. But still, like, the water’s still there because houseplants never entirely disappear. 

Roman Mars [00:15:24] But they came pretty close in the early 20th century with the dawn of modernism. 

Anne Helen Petersen [00:15:29] The reason we have a term like modernism to describe so many different types of art and design, whether it’s the writing of Hemingway or the design of these homes, is because they do share these characteristics of, like, a rejection of that older way of doing things. 

Emmett FitzGerald [00:15:47] And just as Hemingway famously rejected the ornate language of Victorian era novelists, modernist designers rejected the busy interiors of the Victorian home, which they described as overly domestic and feminine. 

Roman Mars [00:16:01] No more horror vacui. The modernists were all about the vacui.

Anne Helen Petersen [00:16:06] The modernists are saying, “We want open spaces. We want integration with the outdoor world. We want very few decorations at all.” 

Roman Mars [00:16:14] And that meant very few houseplants. 

Penny Sparke [00:16:18] So I think–on the face of it, at least–the houseplant is really thrown out with domesticity by the modernists. It’s seen as something belonging to an era they want to move away from. But at the same time, the houseplants hang on in there. 

Emmett FitzGerald [00:16:35] The modernists didn’t get rid of houseplants altogether. But they didn’t want palms sprouting out of tables or ferns growing in the fireplace. 

Roman Mars [00:16:43] In the perfect modernist home, everything was very spare. You just had a few pieces of simple furniture, maybe one painting on the wall. 

Anne Helen Petersen [00:16:52] And if we do have houseplants, it’s going to be, like, one sculptural houseplant in the corner–not surrounded by any other houseplants–and then also placed as almost a beacon in a room, right? One of the few decorations that the space could echo off of. 

Penny Sparke [00:17:10] So each one has a spatial impact–whereas in the Victorian home, they’re all mushed together into a jungle-like ensemble, if you like. So now it’s using individual plants in much more strategic ways. 

Emmett FitzGerald [00:17:24] Popular houseplants during this period included the famously sculptural monstera deliciosa–the rubber plant with its thick, shiny leaves–and perhaps the most modernist plant of all: the cactus. 

Penny Sparke [00:17:36] Absolutely. Because it’s small, sculptural, and you’d find rows of cacti in one shelf, say, and that would be all you’d find of plant life in a modernist interior. 

Roman Mars [00:17:50] But if modernism was a relative ebb in our relationship with indoor plants, by the 1960s and 70s, homes were once again awash in green. 

Penny Sparke [00:17:59] Well, the 70s was a period of great opulence of plants again–and interiors. That was the era of the macramé hanging basket–I’m old enough to remember them–and bringing jungle-like interiors back in again. 

Emmett FitzGerald [00:18:13] And this wave in the 70s corresponded with a shift in interior design, a move away from the stark minimalism of the modern period and towards a looser style. 

Roman Mars [00:18:24] The angular sofa gave way to the beanbag chair. And houseplants once again proliferated. 

Anne Helen Petersen [00:18:30] So you have the trailing spider plant in a macramé hanger or houseplants just hanging out in a much more maximalist style. That really did, I think, in a lot of ways resemble the Victorian era. 

Roman Mars [00:18:44] Like the Victorian era, the houseplant wave of the 60s and 70s was driven in part by a feeling that people had lost touch with nature. This was the dawn of the modern environmental movement and the back to land movement. People were longing to reconnect with the natural world. 

Penny Sparke [00:19:00] And the concept of Biophilia comes along, which basically means that there’s some sort of deep, spiritual almost link between us and plants because although we may not have lived within nature for two or three generations, we still have the memory of it–and that it can be evoked by surrounding ourselves with plants. 

Roman Mars [00:19:22] In 1973, The Secret Life of Plants was published. The book argued that plants were capable of thought and feeling. The authors relied on a lot of New Agey pseudoscience. But they were tapping into the plant-worshiping zeitgeist. 

Emmett FitzGerald [00:19:37] But the intensity of people’s love for plants eventually became the object of ridicule. Anne noticed a wave of houseplant media coverage during this decade, including three cover stories in New York Magazine. 

Anne Helen Petersen [00:19:50] And there’s this picture in one of them–it’s called The Secrets of the Plant People. And the picture on the cover is of people–of different silhouettes of people–and each of them has, like, a plant for a face. The plant has overtaken their minds. 

Emmett FitzGerald [00:20:05] And the subtext here was that people’s love of houseplants was going too far. They were obsessives. 

Anne Helen Petersen [00:20:11] Then all of the photos, including the one on the cover, depict people who seem to have succumbed to a sort of plant mania. So, these spaces in New York and the boroughs that are just filled with plants–like a guy whose attic is all orchids, or a guy whose entire apartment is begonias–and they call him a “begonia maniac.” And the art direction there is for you to think like, “These people are crazy. This is what you don’t want to be.” 

Roman Mars [00:20:49] The message here was that it was cool to be a person who had plans, but you didn’t want to go too far. You didn’t want to be a plant person. 

Emmett FitzGerald [00:20:57] In the end, the hippie houseplant movement was fairly short-lived. In her book A Potted History, the historian Catherine Horwood writes that by the end of the 20th century, houseplants had become, quote, “just another burden. Yet one more thing to look after once work was finished, the house cleaned, the dog fed, and the children put to bed.” 

Roman Mars [00:21:18] But as we’ve learned, our love of houseplants ebbs and flows. And that brings us to our current wave, which Anne argues began around 2010. 

Anne Helen Petersen [00:21:27] That’s when I remember seeing more and more succulents and houseplants just generally for sale in places like Target. 

Roman Mars [00:21:35] A lot of different factors contributed to our contemporary houseplant boom. Many young people are living in small apartments and cities without a lot of outdoor space. And houseplants are an alternative to gardening. 

Emmett FitzGerald [00:21:47] They’ve also just become cheaper and more widely available. You can buy them at boutique plant shops, or in the checkout line at Urban Outfitters, along with a tote bag that says “#succulentsquad,” or on websites like the Sill, which will ship a plant right to your house. And there are plant swaps, where collectors meet up to trade cuttings of their favorite varieties. 

Roman Mars [00:22:07] And then, of course, there’s Instagram, which has enabled people to document their collections and share plant care strategies on a massive scale. The popularity of houseplants on social media has supercharged the houseplant trend cycle. Varieties go in and out of fashion like sneakers, and some people spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars at Rare Houseplant Auctions. 

Plant Person #1 [00:22:31] So I think the first trend that we are going to be seeing going into 2022 is the variegated Ethereum. 

Plant Person #2 [00:22:39] The next one is the variegated alocasia. As you can see from the picture, they are stunning. 

Emmett FitzGerald [00:22:46] Around 2016, the IT houseplant was Pilea peperomioides, or the Chinese money plant, which grows naturally in Yunnan. When Pilea first got popular on Instagram, it was expensive and hard to find. People in the U.S. were paying over $50 for a tiny little one. But then the industrial nurseries just started growing more of it and the prices dropped. And today, Pilea is everywhere. You can get a small one for $5 to $10 at just about any plant store you walk into. 

Roman Mars [00:23:15] The growth in the houseplant industry has made collecting more affordable and accessible, but it also comes with costs. Rare plant species are sometimes harvested illegally from the wild and sold on eBay and Facebook. And when houseplants get popular, they become mass produced commodities. It takes a lot of water to grow them, plastic to keep them in pots, and fossil fuels to ship them around the world. All so you can have the next trendy plant as quickly and cheaply as possible. 

Emmett FitzGerald [00:23:44] Anne Helen Petersen says that on its surface, this Instagram-driven houseplant mania can feel like something totally new–like a clean break from the past. But she also sees echoes of the different eras of houseplant history in our current moment. 

Anne Helen Petersen [00:23:58] Yeah, I think that this current moment really began with a more modernist understanding, especially with the embrace of the succulent. Like the succulent is a very modernist style. 

Roman Mars [00:24:10] This was happening at the same time as the mid-century modern furniture renaissance. And so, you might have one or two succulents that would look great next to your knock-off Eames chair. 

Anne Helen Petersen [00:24:19] But something interesting has happened over the course of, I would say, the last 10-12 years. I think that if you started with a single plant because you were like, “That looks good. You know, I can handle a single plant. It’ll look good on Instagram”–those people have kind of caught the fever. And then you’re like, “Oh, now I have 15 plants. Is this too many plants?” 

Emmett FitzGerald [00:24:41] And pretty soon your minimalist mid-century modern interior starts to look like a Victorian drawing room or the downtown apartment of a crazed begonia maniac. 

Anne Helen Petersen [00:24:51] Which is what I have now. You know, I have some pieces that are structural parts of the decor and then a lot more that are just spreading. And it’s like an oozing virus. It’s like more plants in as many directions as possible. 

Emmett FitzGerald [00:25:10] Anne told me that she currently has, like, 40 houseplants, which I think is a lot. I’ve got, like, 11, and that feels like a lot. But I wanted to talk to someone who was more obsessed than either of us. Someone who has made houseplants a central part of his identity. 

Micael Butial [00:25:26] Oh, hello. I’ll let you in. 

Emmett FitzGerald [00:25:29] Okay. Thanks so much. Micael Butial lives with his partner, Paul, in a cute little apartment in Oakland. When they first moved in, Micael really wanted to get a cat, but Paul was allergic. 

Micael Butial [00:25:41] Once we can’t get the cat, I was like, “Okay, let’s do something else.”

Emmett FitzGerald [00:25:47] And so he went out and got his very first houseplant. It was a Ficus that he got from Trader Joe’s. He loved it, and so he got another plant–this time a monstera–then another. And pretty soon he was hooked. 

Micael Butial [00:25:59] This just, like, became like a passion on the side. So, it just grew from a single Ficus to now 100+ plants indoors and in the balcony. So, yeah, a lot of plants. 

Emmett FitzGerald [00:26:14] And those plants have a lot of fans. Micael has 25,000 Instagram followers who watch him water, fertilize, and take care of his plant babies. His signature move is that he dances with his plants using stop motion. 

Micael Butial [00:26:29] I rotate them, like, quarter by quarter until they do a full twist. And then through power of edit, you can make them dance. 

Emmett FitzGerald [00:26:38] To what song? 

Micael Butial [00:26:41] It depends. There’s the Flo Rida “spinning head right round and round.” 

Emmett FitzGerald [00:26:56] On Instagram, Micael’s apartment feels like a greenhouse club. But in person it’s quiet and peaceful. 

Micael Butial [00:27:03] Yeah, I usually, in the morning, light incense, and just, like, look in the window, and just adore the plants. 

Emmett FitzGerald [00:27:13] What do you like about them? What emotions do they give you? 

Micael Butial [00:27:18] Oh, gosh. Reminds me of my childhood growing up in the Philippines. I have a little farm, so a little like growing up in a little country. So, it’s fun to, like, have plants around you again. Kind of, like, reminds me of my childhood memories. 

Emmett FitzGerald [00:27:39] Some of Micael’s plants are actually native to the Philippines. He says that when he FaceTimes with his grandma, she’ll recognize plants inside of his apartment. 

Micael Butial [00:27:47] So I collected some of them just to honor my country. Like, this biggest Alocasia I have–that is from our province of Bicol, which is in the east side of the Philippines. So, I collect small things that remind me of home. 

Emmett FitzGerald [00:28:08] Micael says that knowing a houseplant’s context in the wild is important to him as a collector. It can help him understand what the plant needs and how to take care of it. But it also reminds him of the long journey that that plant took to end up in his apartment. Since the early days of European colonization, houseplants have become commodities sold on a global marketplace. And at this point, there’s a certain placelessness to them. Today, you might encounter the same houseplant at a coffee shop in Tokyo, or a hotel in Mexico City, or more likely, on Instagram. And then you can go online and order that same plant for yourself, and it will appear on your doorstep in a couple of days. Buying houseplants has gotten so easy that you can lose track of the fact that these objects of interior design are also living organisms from a particular place. And each one has a history. 

Roman Mars [00:29:11] After the break. What’s better for your plants? Flo Rida or Bach cantatas? Stay with us. 15% of the world is living with some sort of disability, which leaves the internet inaccessible for many people. And it’ll only get worse as our population ages and people become more dependent on the digital world. But you can change that. Fable is a leading accessibility platform powered by people with disabilities. With Fable, organizations don’t have to worry about compliance, so they can instead build incredible and accessible user experiences. Digital teams work with Fable to improve accessibility for over 1 billion people with disabilities. By working more closely with people with disabilities, companies drive open, untapped segments of their market, increase customer engagement, and make their products more usable for everyone in the process. Fable Engage connects digital teams to people with disabilities remotely and on demand for research and testing. Fable Upskill provides digital accessibility training for digital teams to gain access to build inclusive products. Learn more, and start designing and building more accessible, better products today at Want to start a free accessibility review of your website or app? Head to Music, the universal language, bringing people from all over the world together. It’s too bad three-part harmony can’t get you to the bathroom in a foreign country. Whether you want to learn a language to get the most out of travel, sing along to songs from around the world, or just pick up a new skill–Rosetta Stone can help you get there. Rosetta Stone offers 25 languages from Spanish, to Korean, to Hindi. Each lesson is fun and practical, with interactive activities and real-life scenarios to prepare you for real conversations with real people. Rosetta Stone’s unique, dynamic immersion method helps you intuitively pick up new words, sentences, and even grammar. You’ll be surprised how much you’ll be able to say in just a few minutes. Perfect your accent with the true accent pronunciation engine. Instead of using speech recognition to merely detect what you said, Rosetta Stone tells you how well you said it compared to native speakers. Learn pretty much any language you’re interested in, or even all of them, with a lifetime unlimited subscription. For a limited time, 99% Invisible listeners can get Rosetta Stone’s Lifetime Unlimited subscription, which gives you access to all 25 of their languages forever for 60% off. Visit today. Rosetta Stone: how language is learned. Many of us open our hearts and make donations during the holiday season. But when you donate, how can you feel confident that your donations are really making a big impact? You could do weeks of research to find charities, figure out what they do, how effective they are, and how the charity might use additional money. Or you could visit There you’ll find free research and recommendations about the charities that can save or improve lives the most per dollar. GiveWell spends 30,000 hours each year researching charitable organizations and only directs funding to a few of the highest impact evidence-backed charities that they’ve found. Over 100,000 donors have used GiveWell to donate more than $1 billion. Rigorous evidence suggests that these donations will save over 150,000 lives and improve the lives of millions more. And using GiveWell, research is free. GiveWell wants as many donors as possible to make informed decisions about high impact giving. They publish all their research and recommendations on their site for free. No signup required. They allocate your tax-deductible donation to the charity or fund you choose without taking a cut. If you’ve never donated to GiveWell’s recommended charities before, you can have your donation matched up to $100 before the end of the year or as long as matching funds last. To claim your match, go to, and pick “podcast,” and enter “99% Invisible” at checkout. Make sure that they know that you heard about GiveWell on 99% Invisible to get your donation matched. Did you know life insurance through your workplace may not offer enough protection for your family’s needs? Policygenius gives you a smarter way to find and buy the right coverage. Policygenius was built to modernize the life insurance industry. Their technology makes it easy to compare life insurance quotes from top companies like AIG and Prudential–in just a few clicks–to find your lowest price. With Policygenius you can find life insurance policies that start at just $17 per month per $500,000 of coverage. And Policygenius has licensed agents that can help you find options that offer coverage in as little as a week and avoid unnecessary medical exams. They’re not incentivized to recommend one insurer over another, so you can trust their guidance. There are no added fees, and your personal info is private. No wonder Policygenius has thousands of five-star reviews on Google and Trustpilot. Your loved ones deserve a financial safety net; you deserve a smarter way to find and buy it. Head to and click the link in the description to get your free life insurance quotes and see how much you could save. That’s So, we’re back with our engineer, Martín Gonzalez. Hey, Martín. 

Martín Gonzalez [00:34:34] Hey, Roman. What’s up? 

Roman Mars [00:34:35] And we’re here to talk about plants and music. 

Martín Gonzalez [00:34:38] I wanted to start off by playing you some of my favorite plant-related music. This amazing record called Plantasia by Mort Garson. It’s from 1976, right in the middle of the second big houseplant boom. And it came free with purchases at Mother Earth Plant Store in Los Angeles. 

Roman Mars [00:35:01] I mean, I would definitely expect that coming from a place called Mother Earth–that kind of spacey, New Agey, psychedelic, you know, kind of music. But I guess it’s not necessarily what I would associate with plants. 

Martín Gonzalez [00:35:13] Totally. Everyone’s heard that classical music is supposed to help plants grow, and it feels kind of intuitively true. 

Roman Mars [00:35:20] Right. 

Martín Gonzalez [00:35:20] You know, it’s music that smart people listen to, so it’s got to be, like, scientifically superior, right? 

Roman Mars [00:35:26] Sure. 

Martín Gonzalez [00:35:27] So I looked into it to see if it was a real thing. And the first person to make this claim was an Indian scientist in the early 1900s named Jagadish Chandra Bose. He made some major discoveries in how electricity works in plants and measured how they reacted to stimulus. But he took those discoveries into some pretty wild territory. He claimed that plants actually have thoughts, and feelings, and of course, musical preferences. 

Roman Mars [00:35:51] But, like, turn of the 20th century is way earlier than I thought for that kind of, you know, woo woo notion. 

Martín Gonzalez [00:35:56] Yeah, it was still a fringy idea for most of the 20th century until the Secret Life of Plants, which we referenced in the main story. It was a book that came out in 1973 and adapted a few years later into a movie. It’s really more of a vibe than a documentary. There’s long stretches of time lapse photography of plants growing and a beautiful Stevie Wonder soundtrack. Mainly, though, it’s full of pseudoscientific experiments and anecdotal evidence to support some, shall we say, dubious claims about plant consciousness. For example, it heavily features the work of Cleve Backster. Before studying plants, he was a CIA interrogator and one of the foremost polygraph experts in his day. He was working late one night and wondered what kind of lie detector readings his office plant would give. He watered it and… 

Cleve Backster [00:36:52] It went into sort of a wild excitation, very similar to the first part of a human taking a polygraph test. 

Martín Gonzalez [00:37:00] That made him curious about how a plant might react to a threat. And he decided he would light one of its leaves on fire. He didn’t have any matches and was thinking about going to the other room to grab some. But before he even got up. Something unexpected happened. 

Cleve Backster [00:37:14] The tracing just went right off the top of the page. And the only thing that occurred at that time. No lighting of a match. Nothing else. Merely the imagery of fire. 

Roman Mars [00:37:23] Wait. So, he thought that the plant could read his mind thinking about fire? 

Martín Gonzalez [00:37:28] Yeah, that is exactly what he’s saying. The plants have ESP. And he goes on to claim that plants get distressed at the harm of any living being, which he tries to prove by killing a bunch of shrimp in front of plants to see if they get upset. 

Narrator #1 [00:37:45] At some undetermined moment chosen by a randomizer, these brine shrimp will fall to their deaths in boiling water. 

Roman Mars [00:37:54] This is demented. 

Martín Gonzalez [00:37:57] Yeah. He also has a researcher commit plant murder by ripping up one plan in front of another one. 

Narrator #2 [00:38:03] In some mysterious way, the plant which is attached to the instrument is able to heal the mutilation of its comrades. Hours later, the technicians are asked to return to the scene of the crime. The evidence is clear. The remaining plant has correctly identified the assailant. 

Roman Mars [00:38:21] Wow. So, what they’re saying is, like, there could be a plant in a room at the scene of a crime, like a murder can happen, and the plant would be a witness to it and could pinpoint who did the murder. That’s stunning. I am surprised I haven’t seen that on Law and Order. 

Martín Gonzalez [00:38:37] Yeah. And, you know, as soon as you hear it, you go, “That’s a little too far.” And this is kind of a recurring theme. The results of the experiment sound too good to be true, and they end up being difficult or impossible to replicate. There’s frequently methodology issues and experimental bias. It’s really easy to selectively interpret this polygraph data to fit whatever theory you’ve cooked up. So going back to the idea that classical music helps plants grow. Around the same time as Secret Life of Plants, this pianist named Dorothy Retallack conducted these experiments about plants and music. Now, it’s important to note she wasn’t a botanist–just an undergrad music student fulfilling a biology requirement. But her experiments got tons of media coverage because they were very attention-grabbing. For example, here’s a clip from a 1977 episode of In Search of… hosted by none other than Leonard Nimoy. 

Leonard Nimoy [00:39:31] Mrs. Retallack theorized that in subtle ways, plants might share her sensitivity to sound. Harsh music had always bothered Mrs. Retallack. Could it be that plants also preferred one sound to another? 

Martín Gonzalez [00:39:46] She set up an experiment with two groups of plants in separate soundproof chambers. 

Leonard Nimoy [00:39:50] Semi-classical music was played into one. Hard rock into the other. In the chamber with soft music, the plants leaned toward the speaker, seeming to draw strength from the melodious sounds. In the chamber with rock music, the plant shrank away and eventually died. 

Martín Gonzalez [00:40:10] And in a coincidence no one could have guessed, the music that helps plants grow just so happens to be the kind of music that she likes. 

Roman Mars [00:40:20] What a shock. 

Martín Gonzalez [00:40:22] And the dead giveaway is that in her book about these studies, she says that the withered plants reminded her of the burnouts at rock festivals. And she also volunteers to use her research in anti-drug PSAs. 

Roman Mars [00:40:34] Oh, my goodness. Okay. 

Martín Gonzalez [00:40:35] Now, there is plenty of evidence that plants do react to sound. Experiments have proven that they’ll grow towards a speaker that’s playing the sound of running water or release toxins when they hear the sound of a caterpillar chomping on leaves. But whenever other researchers have tried to replicate this kind of music experiment, though, generally what they found is that plants don’t have any preference for a specific kind of music. What they like is moving air as opposed to stagnant air. So, it’s just the waves of the sound rather than the content of it. And in fact, when MythBusters tried it out, their heavy metal plants outperformed the classical music ones. 

Roman Mars [00:41:12] That’s interesting. 

Martín Gonzalez [00:41:13] So we’ve been talking a lot about what sounds plants like. But what about the sounds plants can make? 

Roman Mars [00:41:21] Okay. 

Martín Gonzalez [00:41:22] So for me, the coolest part of Secret Life of Plants is this artist named John Lifton, who did a project where he hooked plants up to synthesizers. And along the same lines, I’ve got this device called a PlantWave. It turns your house plants into little Brian Eno’s. 

Roman Mars [00:41:46] Yeah. So how does that end up working? 

Martín Gonzalez [00:41:48] It’s actually pretty similar to the method that Cleve Backster used. Basically, you attach electrical sensors to your plant, and it reads the fluctuating voltages. But instead of using that data to fit kooky theories, the PlantWave maps it onto soothing flutes, tingles, and bloops. And as the plant photosynthesize, the sound it produces changes over time. So, I hooked it up to my aloe, and I let it get just a little drier than usually you would. And it just was only putting out these couple sparse, lonely notes. I watered it, and I came back 12 hours later, and I heard all these rich harmonies. 

Roman Mars [00:42:34] That’s so cool. 

Martín Gonzalez [00:42:36] So when Emmett interviewed Micael for this story, we also brought along the PlantWave and recorded his monstera to see what it would sound like. And we thought it sounded so cool that we actually ended up using it in the story to score the part about 1970s playing culture. 

Roman Mars [00:42:58] Wow. So, did you try other plants besides the monstera? I mean, do different plants sound different? 

Martín Gonzalez [00:43:04] Well, you know, it’s kind of the anthropomorphic view where it’s not like a palm tree sounds like a surf guitar and a cactus sounds like mariachi. 

Roman Mars [00:43:12] If only.

Martín Gonzalez [00:43:13] It’s really more of a collaboration. You choose the sound and scale, and the plant picks the notes and the rhythms. And what I like about this device is that in the marketing, they go out of their way to not make any wild scientific claims. They say it’s just a pleasing way to create music together with your plants and help you feel closer to them. It’s kind of like Micael dancing with his plants to make TikToks. Spending more time with them makes you better tuned into their needs. And that’ll help them grow much more than blasting violin concertos at them. 

Roman Mars [00:43:42] Right. Right. You’re not inflicting your musical taste on them and insisting that it makes them better plants. 

Martín Gonzalez [00:43:48] And in the end, the music that we made together came out closer to Plantasia than it did to Bach. 

Roman Mars [00:43:53] Right. But I really like the plant music that you made. So, let’s play some more of that, and let’s just, like, do the credits over that. 

Martín Gonzalez [00:44:00] Okay. Yeah. So, this is an oregano plant that I grew from a clipping I got from my dad. 

Roman Mars [00:44:19] 99% Invisible was produced this week by Emmett FitzGerald and Anne Helen Peterson. Mix and tech production by Martín Gonzalez. Music by a director of Sound, Swan Real–with assistance from Micael’s monstera and Martín’s aloe and oregano. Delaney Hall is executive producer. Kurt Kohlstedt is our digital director. The rest of the team includes Vivian Lei, Chris Berube, Christopher Johnson, Lasha Madan, Sofia Klatzker, Jayson De Leon, Joe Rosenberg, intern Sarah Baik, and me, Roman Mars. Big thanks this week to Anne Helen Petersen. Today’s episode was inspired by Anne’s houseplant essay on her Substack, Culture Study. It’s a great read, and you should totally check it out. Also, Penny Sparke’s book about houseplant history is called Nature Inside. It is also great. And thank you to Joe Patitucci and Data Garden for sending us the PlantWave so that our plants can make sounds. You’ll find links to all those things on our website. 99% Invisible is part of the Stitcher and SiriusXM podcast family. Now headquartered six blocks north in the Pandora building… in beautiful… uptown… Oakland, California. You can find the show and join discussions about the show on Facebook You can tweet at me @romanmars and the show @99piorg. We’re on Instagram and Reddit, too. You can find links to other Stitcher shows I love as well as every past episode of 99PI at

Narrator #3 [00:45:53] Dr. Hashimoto, managing director and chief of research for the Fuji Electronic Industries, has constructed special instruments, which translate the electrical output of plants into modulated sounds, giving voice to a cactus. 

Cactus [00:46:10] Hello. What really makes me grow is Stitcher and SiriusXM.

Kay Announcer [00:46:25] It’s the last big sale of the year at Kay. Shop now and save 25% to 50% on everything December 8th through the 15th. This holiday, celebrate every kiss with Kay. Select collections, watches, and other exclusions apply. Visit for details. 



Producer Emmett Fitzgerald spoke with the writer Anne Helen Petersen; historian Penny Sparke, author of the book Nature Inside; and collector Micael Butial whose dancing plants can be seen on his Instagram.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

All Categories

Minimize Maximize