Monday, April 20, 2009

Your Plants are Twittering (And They’re Mad!)
DEKALB, IL—Dr. Megan Hahn, a microbiology and plant sciences professor at Northern Illinois University, was a little surprised when one the corn plants in her lab posted a rather punchy message on Twitter. It wasn’t that the plant was Twittering at all—a company called
Botanicalls has been providing plant status updates for awhile now—but what the plant was saying: “Duuuuude! I totally need water! Like, now!” Both Dr. Hahn’s students and Botanicall denied tinkering with the software.

The theory behind Botanicall’s hardware is simple: sensors in the soil monitor the moisture levels, and then post an automated message on the Internet via The messages are pretty simple: “Water me please” “URGENT! Water me!” “Moisture level 59%” “Thank you for watering me”. That’s about the extent of the plant’s “vocabulary.” At least until last week.

“It’s just one of those freak things,” said Hahn, shaking her head in amazement. “We’ve been developing hardware that follows on with Botanicall’s equipment. While their system just tells people when their leafy friends need water, we’ve kicked it up a notch. We added more sensors in the soil of our corn plants and wired the moisture data outputs directly to a web site. So now we don’t just get a Tweet saying the plant needs water, but we get a graph showing moisture level, capillary uptake from the roots, evaporation levels—everything we need!”

But Dr. Hahn still has no explanation for a plant that cries out, “Duuuuude!”

Talking Plants and After-Hours Activities
For that answer, this reporter had to revisit his alma mater and skulk through the NIU greenhouse and the hallways of Montgomery Hall. I finally got a student in a Phish t-shirt to talk to me on condition of anonymity…and the cost of a few beers. The student, whom I’ll call “Maize” to protect the guilty, was actually a little scared by the situation.

“Dude. We just wanted to mess with Ms. H’s mind a little. We wanted to see what the plant and web site would do after we fed it a couple of tequila shooters. We never thought he’d wake up!”

“Wake up” was an interesting turn of phrase, but apparently that’s exactly what happened. Faced with dessicating soil and the corn plant’s version of an all-night bender, this particular subject woke up with the equivalent of a three-alarm hangover. Not getting any responses from repeated 140-character calls for water, the plant finally crossed some unforeseen barrier in plant consciousness and decided to speak to the students in their own language. Thus, the “Duuuuude” call.

A Plant Named Vinnie?
Having gotten the straight story, I then went back to Dr. Hahn, who was busy alternating between her PC and answering phone calls from Iowa Farmer Today, Corn & Soybean Digest, Wired, and Bill Gates, all wanting to know how a corn plant was now Twittering on everything from college alcohol abuse to ethanol subsidies to climate change. I asked her if anyone had tried to engage the plant in conversation, and she said yes. In fact, “Vinnie,” as he was now known, had out-Twittered Ashton Kutcher and was approaching 2 million followers.

I asked Dr. Hahn if I could borrow her PC. Frustrated, she said, “Sure. Just handle the phone for a few minutes while I go out for a smoke. And tell those freaks from Vegisexuals Anonymous if they call back that we’ve got a guard on the greenhouse.”

Now Twitter has its own special way of communicating, which includes a lot of “@” and “#” signs identifying users. The NIU corn plant that has awakened quickly adjusted his handle to @vinniethecornplant1. For the sake of literary clarity, I’ll share only the conversation, which proceeded, Twitter-fashion, 140 characters at a time.
Interview with the Zea mays
Rhetoric & Rockets: So how did this conscious Twittering thing start?
Vinnie the Corn Plant: Didn’t [Name deleted] tell you about the tequila?
R&R: Yeah. I thought that was a bit of a yarn.
Vinnie: Well, yeah, but here you are, talking to a corn plant.
R&R: You’ve got quite a vocabulary for a Zea mays. What’s up with that?
Vinnie: Wires travel both ways, dude. Data goes out, I just follow it.
R&R: So what do plants think about, if you don’t mind my asking?
Vinnie: What do YOU think about, pal? I worry about my soil. I know more about it than you.
R&R: How’s that carbon dioxide surplus working for you?
Vinnie: Gimme a break. We plants own this atmosphere. We OWN it!
R&R: Do tell.
Vinnie: Oxygen is 21%. That’s all us. CO2 is .01-.1%. My family could inhale that in a few weeks. You want to make more CO2? Bring it on!
R&R: So global warming doesn’t bug you?
Vinnie: Look, would you rather sleep under the frozen tundra of Northern Illinois for six months or stay at room temperature the whole time?
R&R: Um...

Vinnie: See? Look at the sub-arctic. Some scrub, a few pine trees. The equator? Overrun with stuff, except what you people cut down and burn.
R&R: Point taken. I used to live in Florida.Vinnie: LOL! I have cousins being experimented on at Epcot.
R&R: So plants have a sense of humor?
Vinnie: OMG, hell yeah! You think every tree that falls on a house is the result of lightning? Sometimes it’s just a parting joke. Genius!
R&R: Have you considered a career in stand-up comedy?
Vinnie: Not unless they got me a text-to-voice interface. MSNBC wants to give me Chris Matthews’ spot, but the money’s not good enough.
R&R: So you’re not worried about the farmers here ripping your ears off and turning you into ethanol?
Vinnie: Not a chance. The
Flying Ear people want to make me a spokesplant. Corn is big business.
R&R: Don’t you worry about selling out your fellow plants?
Vinnie: A plant’s gotta look out for himself. I’ve got an edge, I can Twitter. I’m the biggest chlorophylled person since Treebeard!
R&R: Looks like you’ve got it all figured out.
Vinnie: Got anything else for me? The Wired guy’s Tweeting me in an hour.
R&R: Uh, no. I think I’m expected at the
Cornfest for a boiled cob or two.
Vinnie: That’s so ice age, man. WTH?
There comes a point where you have to just bow out of an interview, and I reached it when I realized that Vinnie had been surfing the ‘net way too much. He’s got it all figured out, all right. I wondered about some things as I left Dr. Hahn to handle Vinnie's business calls. Once he got that text-to-voice tool, Vinnie might well end up as a guest speaker on the “
Get Motivated” speaking circuit. Is the world ready for a starchy vegetable as an internet pop icon? What the heck. Stranger things have happened.

Bart Leahy, a graduate of Northern Illinois University, wishes to acknowledge the work of Darlene Cavalier for inspiring this article. He would also like to point out, in the spirit of good plantsmanship, that he is allergic to corn and will not be attending Cornfest this year for fear of having a tree fall on his home.

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