Helpline for Pot Plants

By: Dr Andrew Impey


Scientists have come up with a way for your pot plants to have a hot-line to your mobile. What more could you want? Hannah Welham wonders whether it's really such a good thing to have your foliage calling you up every five minutes.

I don't know about you but I can't help but think that there's something nicely therapeutic about house plants. Perhaps it's their no-strings-attached, cosily comforting offer of a way to 'get back to nature' having just stepped off the tube. One simple donation of water gets you a freshly oxygenated apartment and some cheery leafiness next to the TV.

'Despite your obvious failings as a plant parent, any wounded flora will take the disappointed rather than angry tone.'

But gone are the days of a guilty return to a shriveled wasteland of foliage after a long weekend away. Thanks to these 'scientists', your thirsty and suffering pot plants can now call on 'Botanicall' (geddit?) for some light refreshment. In a strange turn of events, a team of postgraduate (and presumably very bored) students from New York University are planning to provide re-leaf to our green friends.

The technology behind the Botanicall project is, according to interactive communications student Rebecca Bray, remarkably simple. A simple moisture sensor is placed in the soil surrounding the plant, where it measures the amount of water available for the roots. This information is then passed down a wireless network to a gateway. If the plant is in severe danger of drowning or dehydration, the gate opens to patch through a call to your mobile number.

The students have been surprised at how popular the idea has been, having received an unexpectedly high number of pre-sale orders for the software.

But if this is all seeming like a bit too much right now, I do have some words of reassurance. Despite your obvious failings as a plant parent, any wounded flora will take the disappointed rather than angry tone when the uncomfortable call has to be made, making their requests very politely.

And, having rushed home to aid the flailing shrubbery, the plants then check in once more to thank you for your efforts and to let you know that everything is now, thank God, okay. According to the team this stops the phone calls becoming too 'needy'. Right.

As if this wasn't enough, the plants are also given personalities according to their species - talk about stereotyping guys! For example, any spider plant owners out there can expect calls of a friendly and cheery manner.

However, this hugely anthropocentric illusion quickly fades if you have a listen to the team's demo (listen here). What is meant to be a Scots Moss calling for more water in a fake Scottish accent (the plant doesn't actually originate from Scotland you see) sounds more like a deranged Billy Connelly threatening to kill if he doesn't get another whisky.

Could this be the next big taboo? As if the problem of unwanted relatives calling up in the middle of meetings to complain about how neglectful you are isn't taxing enough. Now, any forgetfulness on behalf of your plants will be splashed around the canteen for all to hear.

In one last desperate attempt at plausibility, Bray makes clear what Botanicall hopes to achieve. 'We hope that the system will help people learn how to take better care of their plants over time and maybe not even need the phone calls after a while,' she says. How bleeding difficult was it in the first place?

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Andy worked for four years studying ducks (no stop laughing, he really did). He went into his PhD thinking he was going to save the world (albeit from ducks) and now spends him time lovingly preening strange but true and other aspects of null-hypothesis

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