Seedling growing from the soil with gardeners hands cupping around plant.

Keep pats for pets, plants grow better in peace. Credit: ©

Written by Mike McRae

Your pets might like a good scratch, but new research suggests your beloved pot plants might not be so fond of having their fronds fondled.

A study conducted by Melbourne’s La Trobe University has found plants switch on a variety of genes whenever you brush against them.

“The lightest touch from a human, animal, insect, or even plants touching each other in the wind, triggers a huge gene response in the plant,” says plant biologist Professor Jim Whelan.

Within half an hour of touching, 10 per cent of the plant’s genes jump into action. That requires a lot of energy that could have been used to make it grow.

It’s still not entirely clear what’s behind the response, but the researchers suspect the tickling of other leaves might help plants avoid growing into one other’s spaces. The kinds of genes activated also suggest the reaction helps protect against nibbling insects.

More studies should help us understand. In the meantime, try not to give your plants too much affection – they’ll love you for it.

What is a gene?
Genes are small sections of DNA: the code that carries instructions for building a living organism.

This article is from Issue 30 of Double Helix magazine, available for purchase from the CSIRO Publishing website.

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2 responses

  1. Ruby Avatar

    So what about wiping dust off indoor pot plant leaves with a wet towel? My plants always seem to perk up with the extra water on the leaves, and I suppose getting rid of the dust enhances the plant’s ability to photosynthesise. It’s pretty much the only reason i need to touch my indoorplants.

    But then what about the effect of wind on outdoor plants? Won’t plants be fully on stressed out if it’s windy?

    1. David Avatar

      Good questions!
      I think wiping dust off leaves is probably a good idea – dust definitely blocks sunlight, and many plants appreciate a good misting. As long as you’re not doing it several times a day!

      Good point about the wind. I don’t really know, but it’d assume plants have ways of telling the difference between wind and touch. Of course, if it’s windy enough, they might touch themselves…

      Anyways, you can read the actual paper here:

      There’s plenty of scope for follow-up experiments!

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