Lingua Planta

Text by Merle Bergers
Graduate Man and Food – Design Academy Eindhoven

Could understanding the language of plants help us feel empathy for them?

There seems to be a new perspective in science and biology that is about -really – understanding flora. For a long time plants have been regarded as one of the most unintelligent of species and biologists who claimed otherwise where frowned upon and called quacks or new age mystics. Now, more people in the area of biology and science say that there might be a possibility that plants are much more intelligent and much more like us than most people think — capable of cognition, communication, information processing, computation, learning, memory and collaborating with other species. A way of communication that happens mostly via the use of volatiles like scents.

Growing up in a small forest where my fantasy, facts and imagination about nature intermingled I was very much drawn to this ‘secret life of plants’. I am still very fascinated by this subject, taking cues from scientists and writers like Peter Wohlleben, Daniel Chamovitz and Michael Pollan. Taking up this information I was getting more and more interested to see how plants set up collaborations with species like insects, micro-organisms, herbivores and humans. I worked together with scientist Peter Roessingh (UvA) to try to comprehend how this really works. I wanted to know what these plant collaborations smell like, if I might smell something familiar that could be re-interpreted with this new perspective. At one point I read in Chamovitz’ book about people working with plants sometimes stop wearing certain perfumes like Chanel nr. 5. It contains methyl jasmonate, which confuses certain plants as they would create this volatiles themselves when under attack of a herbivore, activating a defense mechanism.

Lingua Planta is a sort of language trainer that proposes a new perspective on plants. An installation emits fragrant mist based on the three ways plants use volatiles to work together with other organic species; attract, repel and defend. With a range of volatiles from IFR, I blended three different perfumes based on these messages. When smelling these perfumes, memories may arise of fresh cut grass, walks in a pine forest after a storm or the pungent smell of citrus fruits and blooming flowers like roses. Scents that might smell nice to us, but each have an olfactory message. It leaves room for interpretation and thoughts about the role these volatiles play in a plant’s life.

With Lingua Planta I wanted to show a behind-the-scenes of how this mechanism of the plant language center works, how it looks and wat it smells like. It is an objective display, I don’t claim to explain it very practically. The installation’s aesthetics are based on the microscopical magnification of a tomato plant surface . On top of the surface we can see the stomata, which are basically the sensorial transmitters of the plant. This is also shown in an accompanying microscopic film shot at the laboratory of the UvA. The goal is to show open minds a window to some of the magic and mystery of plant life, to understand them a little bit better, to realise they are living, active and adaptive organisms that are capable of communication.

The biggest fundamental difference between plants and humans seems to be the brain. Plants don’t have those, but nevertheless show some sort of communication interspecies and cross species and a complex system of receiving and reacting to many sorts of these volatiles. It might be too early to call plants intelligent but I hope Lingua Planta gives room to think about exactly this.

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