Wednesday, May 27, 2009


On the long tables in the “refectory” at St. Mary’s, Sewanee, a row of potted African violets bloom happily and brighten many breakfasts in the room overlooking the misty valley. Yesterday morning, Sister Madeleine Mary sat with us and explained why she has had such success with these house plants that bloom in a variety of colors. “You have to name them and talk to them,” she said. “For instance, this one is Ute, named after a very elegant German nun, and she likes conversation about ethereal topics. Then there’s Zita who requires some knowledge of Filipino customs and dress when you speak to her. She’s named after Sister Mary Zita here at the Convent. We mustn't forget Cindy who was named after a nun's cat and responds to purring sounds. As for Greta, she prefers a more guttural tone of conversation…and so on.”

You may think Sister Madeleine Mary has been confined to the convent too long and has become schizophrenic , but she is an expert on plant talk and maintains a healthy respect for a flower that has been cultivated by humans for hundreds of years. As the official caretaker of the African violets, her plants grow well in the light and well-regulated temp of the breakfast room, which has windows on three sides. The violets like tepid water and a room free from drafts… and enjoy stimulating conversation, Sister Madeleine insists. I noticed one wilting plant, and Sister said that she had bloomed too profusely when she overheard visitors to the Convent ridiculing the idea that plants understand human language.

Actually, a lot of research continues to be done about plants responding to sound, including wind vibrations that often rasp against the windows of the breakfast room. Music, according to one writer, should be played at 70 decibels, the level of a normal conversation. However, some experts claim that 92 decibels is required, and plants have responded to heavy metal music very well, often growing rapidly after hearing the raucous noises. Sister Madeleine probably plays some of the canticles composed by Hildegard of Bingen, but who knows, she could be a fan of Led Zeppelin!

A German professor Gustav Fechner, who wrote SOUL LIFE OF PLANTS, touted the efficacy of conversing with plants and believed that plants do react very well to environmental stimuli – conversation, music, wind sounds...even Prince Charles of England talks to his plants and advocates speaking to them in an encouraging manner. Of course, there’s no scientific evidence that talk helps plants, but lots of botanists believe in this theory. Luther Burbank, the potato grower, believed that plants could understand the meaning of speech through a form of telepathy. The theory is that talking moves the air around a plant and gives out carbon dioxide to aid in rapid transpiration rates the plants needs for growth. However, when you stand close and make sweet noises to your favorite house plants, don’t expect them to answer back.

I imagine Sister Madeleine’s African violets respond to the constant prayer resonating in the atmosphere of the Convent, but… I thought I heard strains of an English drinking song just before we entered the breakfast room the other day.
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