THE STRANGE WORLD OF VEGETAL DETECTING
Reading time 60 Minutes
The Strange World of Vegetal Detecting
“Shouldn’t a scientific paper be at least as much fun to read as a good detective story?”
- Irving Rothchild
On November 2, 1942, a man was walking his dogs in New York’s Central Park when he came upon the body of 20-year old Louise Petecca Almodovar in a ditch. She had four parallel welts on her throat. Her face had a bluish tint and her tongue was protruding from her mouth. The woman had clearly been strangled. The girl’s father suspected “that no good husband of hers,” Anibal Almodovar. Louise had recently left him for cheating on her, and he had responded by sending her a series of threatening letters. He was the obvious suspect, but he had a strong alibi: he had been at The Rhumba Palace with a mistress and over a dozen witnesses.
However, the Rhumba Palace was close to Central Park – there was a chance he could have slipped out, murdered his wife, and returned to the club without being noticed. Further, it was discovered that, the day after the murder, he’d pawned the dark green suit he’d worn out dancing that night. The police recovered it and turned it over to botanical specialist Joseph J. Copeland, who found grass seeds in the pockets and folds of the suit, with a particularly rare weed in the trouser cuff – all of which grew along the ditch where the body was found. Almodovar tried to claim that the trace elements must have been in place from when he visited the park months earlier. But Copeland insisted that the grass in question would not have been in bloom at that time, prompting Almodovar to confess.
Just like the human cadaver, every grass, plant, tree and fungus has a story to tell. There are over eight million stories in the forests, fields and furrows. This has been one of them.
THE BODY ELECTRIC
Behind this crackling sound he could hear a distant humming tone which was the noise of the machine itself, but that was all… The little needle crept slowly across the dial, and suddenly he heard a shriek, a frightful piercing shriek, and he jumped and dropped his hands, catching hold of the edge of the table. He stared around him as if expecting to see the person who had shrieked. There was no one in sight except the woman in the garden next door, and it was certainly not she. She was bending down, cutting yellow roses and putting them in her basket. Again it came—a throatless, inhuman shriek, sharp and short, very clear and cold. The note itself possessed a minor, metallic quality that he had never heard before. Klausner looked around him, searching instinctively for the source of the noise. The woman next door was the only living thing in sight. He saw her reach down; take a rose stem in the fingers of one hand and snip the stem with a pair of scissors. Again he heard the scream.
- Roald Dahl, “The Sound Machine”
There are sort of two schools of thought when it comes to how plants tell stories, and which of these is considered ‘science’ varies depending on who you ask. But some of the earliest 20th century studies in how plants communicate were based on the conceit that, despite their lack of a nervous system, plants could feel, and could communicate these feelings to humans with the help of electronic devices.
In 1900 Indian scientist Jagadish Chandra Bose began conducting electronic experiments on plants to measure their response to physical trauma, most notably their own destruction. Fellow scientists and journalists visiting Bose’s laboratory reported seeing horrific vivisections – on carrots and cabbages. “When the subject is pinched with a pair of forceps, it winces,” wrote a journalist for The Nation in 1914. “It is so strapped that its electric shudder of pain pulls the long arm of a very delicate lever that actuates a tiny mirror. This casts a beam of light on the frieze at the other end of the room, and thus enormously exaggerates the tremor of the creature.” The playwright George Bernard Shaw likewise visited Bose, and reported witnessing a cabbage convulsing in a pot of boiling water. Though he was a pioneering biophysicist, it was Bose’s controversial ideas – such as his belief that plants could experience pain and responded to affection – that he remains best known for, and his plant studies would become a key part of the continuing research done by his successors.
Likewise, in 1939 Austrian psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich determined that plants and humans had a life energy he called “orgone.” Then working in the United States, Reich’s views were not accepted by the scientific community, his Orgone Accumulator – also known as the “orgone box,” a concentrated chamber of metallic and non-metallic materials he proposed could harness these energies – was considered quackery and he was sent to prison, where he died. Nonetheless, Reich became a hero of the sexual revolution (a term he coined), was famously eulogized in Dusan Makavejev’s WR: Mysteries of the Organism (1971), and his research continues through his acolytes.
But the most noted (and quoted) of experimenters in plant communication was Cleve Backster (1924-2013), an interrogation specialist with the CIA and considered their foremost polygraph expert, who had a vegetal epiphany on February 2, 1966 when he attached his polygraph to a plant on a lark. He wanted to see how long it took water to get from the pot to the uppermost leaf, and knew that he could measure this by using the galvanic skin response section of a polygraph, in which two electrodes are attached to either sides of a subject’s finger (or in this case, its leaf). A small electrical current flows from one electrode to the other, while a needle-like pen passes over a continuous graph, recording the body’s resistance to the current. And as we’ve seen in a million movies, when the subject has an emotional reaction, the needle jumps on the graph, creating a pronounced zig-zag. When Backster monitored the plant’s resistance to the electrical current, he determined that what he was witnessing was what he had come to recognize – through nearly two decades of expertise – as an emotional response.
Backster’s life would never be the same. From there he conducted a series of experiments, largely focused on measuring how plants respond to trauma. He conducted tests where he attached the polygraph to houseplants that were in a room where a body was found. And then paraded through suspects to see if the plant would identify the killer. Backster proposed that there is some kind of cellular consciousness, that plants can detect changes or harm to actual individual cells of living tissue in their proximity. As such, he argued that plant sentience goes right down to the molecular level. Further, in experiments where he burned or maimed plants, he noticed that they responded more strongly to his thoughts of harming them than they did to the harm itself, which he saw as proof of extrasensory perception in plants.
Backster published his first paper on the topic, “Evidence of Primary Perception in Plant Life,” in The Journal of Parapsychology in 1968. It is interesting that he chose an outlet relating to parapsychology given the field’s lack of credibility within the scientific community at large, but as Mark Pilkington, author of Far Out! 101 Strange Tales from Science's Outer Edge (2007) and Mirage Men (2010, made into a documentary in 2014) offers, this divide wasn’t always so pronounced. “Parapsychology’s status and credibility within the scientific establishment has been in a state of flux since the foundation of the Society for Psychical Research in the UK in the 1880s,” he says, adding that around the same time as Backster’s research, “the CIA and US military funded research into telepathy, clairvoyance and psychokinesis with researchers and practicing psychics like Andrea Puharich, Uri Geller and Ingo Swann. While there was a popular wave of interest in psychic phenomena and the occult at the time, the mainstream scientific establishment remained pretty sceptical, and the US military’s involvement was a closely guarded secret, as much to prevent the inevitable ridicule as anything else.”
In February 1969, National Wildlife published an article that by all accounts was the impetus for the now-common practice of people talking to their plants. Though German psychologist Gustav Fechner had proposed that plants responded to conversation and affection as early as 1848, it did not really become commonplace until the ecological obsession of the 1970s. However, though readers were drawn in by the notion that plants could sense danger just through proximity to a threat (ie an approaching lumberjack with an axe), “the editors of National Wildlife were more concerned about the application of Backster’s phenomenon to medical diagnosis, criminal investigation and espionage.”
Backster’s experiments became a focal point of both science and occult magazines for the next decade. The cover article of Popular Electronics in February 1969 included a wiring diagram for an instrument called a ‘Psych-Analyser’ which was a kind of DIY lie detector device intended as a party game – it doesn’t directly reference Backster or his work, but the magazine would continue to cover this burgeoning field through articles more directly tied to Backster and plant response – also complete with detailed wiring diagrams – in February and June 1971.  A month later on March 21, 1969, Medical World News commented that ESP research was “on the verge of achieving the scientific respectability that investigators of psychic phenomena have sought in vain since 1882 when the British Society for Psychical Research was founded in Cambridge.”
As Backster shifted his focus to plant communication, researchers all over the country followed suit, trying to reproduce his results and expand on what he had begun. “There would be these experiments in the 70s,” says mycologist Nicholas P. Money, “where these researchers would attach electrodes – so devices for measuring electrical currents – to plant leaves, and they’d do all kind of things like playing different kinds of music to them, and they’d also do things like threatening the plants and coming in and yelling at them, hitting them and things like that, and they swore that these plants were responsive.” Dorothy Retallak conducted a series of experiments on plant response to music as part of her undergraduate research at Temple Buell College (now Colorado Women’s College) that became the basis for her popular book The Sound of Music and Plants (1973). In the book she outlines her experiments with different types and volumes of music, while approaching the subject through a philosophical lens in keeping with the preoccupations of the era. However part of why plants preferred certain kinds of music over others was that, according to Retallak – who subscribed to the notion that plants have ESP – they could understand the questionable lyrics of then-contemporary rock music as well as being offended by its “pure chaos.”
While the scientific validity of all of these experiments came into question (and most were later debunked outright), Money points out that “in succeeding years it’s actually become clear that plants and fungi are much more sensitive than we ever imagined. And so at least at that electrical level, there’s all kinds of conversations going on across fungal colonies.” In one of his own experiments, outlined in his 2004 book Mr. Bloomfield’s Orchard: The Mysterious World of Mushrooms, Molds, and Mycologists, he describes listening to “the screams of hyphae” (the branching filaments that make up the mycelium of a fungus). He listened as a pair of fellow mycologists at a 1990 scientific meeting in Europe proceeded to torture a hyphae with heat, cold, starvation from moisture and even severing the hyphae with scalpels, while its electrical response was amplified by piercing the hyphae with a microelectrode, which would then convert these electronic impulses into sounds, with changes in voltage manifesting as alterations in pitch. Thus, the screams.
“I was probably being metaphorical when I said it was screaming,” Money admits, “or it was making this buzzing sound – but that’s what we were recording. You do the same sort of thing with plants too. And so the actual original idea wasn’t nuts, it was based on the extreme sensitivity of plants and fungi to their environment. And the fact that they do communicate – they’ve got a form of a nervous system within themselves, the roots can communicate with the stem and the leaves of a plant, and as I said with a colony, they can communicate information across large distances. One thing is – it sounds brutal – but you sort of starve one area of the colony so that it’s really running out of nutrients, and you provide food to the other part, and you see the whole thing lighting up and channeling its energy towards where this food has been located. It’s really compelling. So that original stuff, the sort of ‘new age’ – it was a bit crazy, but in the end was based on something that you could say had some scientific basis, for all life is sensitive to its surroundings, and everything is electrically active, or bio-electrically active.”
But when Cleve Backster began his experiments in the late 1960s, plants’ response to trauma was a focal point. And not just the response to their own physical trauma through being cut or burned, but trauma they witnessed or experienced via their connections to other living things. It was Backster’s contention that plants not only convulsed when they witnessed brine shrimp dumped into boiling water, or saw another plant beaten or mutilated, but that they could have such a response to human trauma – and more importantly, they could remember it.
In June of the 1969, Argosy magazine published an article on Backster’s work called “Plants Are Only Human.” The humorous potential of Backster’s experiments was not lost on writer Walter McGraw, who opened his story saying:
Picture a Crowded Courtroom. The prosecuting attorney faces his star witness and says, “Mr. Green, on the night of February twenty-fourth, you were present in the bedroom while your mistress was brutally murdered. You saw the killer. I am now going to have three men walk through that door, one at a time, and I want you to tell me if you recognize one of these men as the murderer.” The courtroom is hushed; the judge and jury lean forward in their seats; the tension is unbearable.
Only the witness, Mr. Green, seems unperturbed. Mr. Green is a vegetable. A common house plant. A philodendron to be exact.
The door opens and the first suspect walks into the courtroom. The plant sits quietly on the witness stand, its leaves unruffled. The second suspect enters the room, and there is no reaction from the plant. Everyone in the courtroom holds his breath. The third suspect strides forth – and Mr. Green, the philodendron, screams. Pandemonium reigns. The murderer has been fingered.
The Argosy piece caught the attention of Marcel Vogel, an IBM scientist (and one of the most prolific patent inventors in IBM history), and launched Vogel into his own pioneering work in human-plant communication. Both Backster and Vogel presented papers on plant sentience at the First International Psychotronic Congress in Prague in 1973 (Zdenek Rejdák, the organizer of the conference, coined the term psychotronics in 1967, as a replacement for the term parapsychology), garnering the attention of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. The same year as the Psychotronic Congress saw the publication of the hugely influential book The Secret Life of Plants, which looked at everything from plant ESP to a new obsession of the 1970s: Kirlian photography.
THE KIRLIAN WITNESS
‘Contrary to popular belief,’ said her husband, ‘thoughts, both human and floral, are electromagnetic waves that can be – Wait, it will be easier to show you, my dear.’
He called to his assistant, who was working at the far end of the room. ‘Miss Wilson, will you please bring the communicator?’
Miss Wilson brought the communicator. It was a headband from which a wire led to a slender rod with an insulated handle. Dr. Michaelson put the headband on his wife’s head and the rod in her hand.
‘Quite simple to use,’ he told her. ‘Hold the rod near a flower and it acts as an antenna to pick up its thoughts. And you will find out that, contrary to popular belief –‘
But Mrs. Michaelson was not listening to her husband. She was holding the rod near a pot of daisies on the window sill. After a moment she put down the rod and took a small pistol from her purse. She shot first her husband and then his assistant, Miss Wilson.
Contrary to popular belief, daisies do tell.
- Frederic Brown, Daisies (1955)
At the same time that Backster was conducting his experiments in the US, Soviet scientists were conducting nearly identical experiments with plants – namely, seeing if plants could identify an individual who had harmed a living creature in their proximity. These experiments would become known in the US via the groundbreaking 1970 book, Psychic Discoveries Behind the Iron Curtain by Sheela Ostrander and Lynn Schroeder, two American journalists who attended a conference on psychic phenomena in Russia in 1968. There, they saw films on telekinesis, and watched as blind students were coached in third eye visualization. But the major discovery of the book was its report on a husband and wife team who had figured out a way to photograph energy emanating from living things which would later be described as analogous to the human aura. It was this book which introduced the world to Kirlian photography.
Though the notion of such bio-energy had been rejected by the Western scientific community when Wilhelm Reich had proposed his ‘orgone energy’ and accompanying accumulator in 1939, it was at that time that Semyon Kirlian – an electrician and amateur photographer – began his own research, working over the next decade with his wife Valentina to perfect the apparatus by which they would capture these “high frequency currents” without lens or camera. The process involved placing an object on a sheet of film that was laid on top of a metal discharge plate. “When a high voltage was quickly applied to the object,” explains Daily Grail writer Greg Taylor, “it would create an exposure on the film via electrical coronal discharge.”
Their device was patented in 1949, and they were given funding as of 1960, largely because continued experiments indicated that the photographs could identify otherwise undetectable illnesses, which was of interest to the medical community. It was a Russian scientist named Vladimir Inyushin who proposed that what was being captured through Kirlian photography was in fact the ‘aura’ or ‘astral body,’ and as a result, parapsychological interest in Kirlian’s discovery usurped that of medical researchers.
Psychic Discoveries Behind the Iron Curtain would have a profound effect on the career trajectory of psychologist Thelma Moss, a former actress-turned-psychologist who was then head of UCLA’s parapsychology lab, a collection of adventurous researchers based in the university’s Neuropsychiatric Institute that had been founded in 1967. Moss visited the USSR in the 1970s to investigate Kirlian photography, which became an increasing obsession and a focal point of her research at the lab, much to the chagrin of Moss’ colleague Barry Taff – later to gain fame as one of the parapsychologists working on The Entity case. Taff did not believe that Kirlian photography was capturing the aura. “Dr. Moss was a very skilled clinical psychologist,” he concedes, “but she had no knowledge of photography, electronics, physics, electrophysiology or biophysics, and thus she was totally out of her element in terms of investigating any paranormal linkage to Kirlian photography.” It eventually cost Moss her job; she was dismissed from the NPI in 1978. But before Moss left her post, she gave a Kirlian device to David Bowie, who famously used it to document his ‘aura’ before and after using cocaine, using some of the resultant images in the printed programme that accompanied his 1976 Station to Station tour.
In 1973, Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird published the influential book The Secret Life of Plants, which investigated Kirlian photography as well as the experiments of Bose, Backster, Vogel and other researchers in plant ESP. The book was a massive success, and spawned a documentary film adaptation in 1979 by Walon Green (The Hellstrom Chronicle), complete with a soundtrack by Stevie Wonder, as well providing the inspiration for the pilot episode of the Leonard Nimoy-hosted show In Search Of… called “Other Voices” in 1977. “By the time of the Secret Life of Plants’ publication in 1973, ideas about ecology, non-human consciousness and parapsychology were starting to be discussed outside of the social, cultural and scientific fringes that had entertained them since the late '60s,” says Mark Pilkington. “The fact that the key proponents of plant consciousness at the time, Cleve Backster and Marcel Vogel, worked for the CIA and IBM respectively, obviously added great credence to their claims…(Interestingly, the authors of The Secret Life of Plants, Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird, also both had backgrounds in the US intelligence services, who clearly liked to hire active, imaginative minds). Lyall Watson’s best-selling Supernature – A Natural History of the Supernatural, published around the same time as The Secret Life of Plants, also helped to promote persuasive ideas about the interconnectedness of all life, human or non-human, crystals, and astrology within a ‘sciencey’ framework, and the success of both books helped bolster their credibility, ensuring that plant consciousness and ‘the Backster effect’ were hot topics of discussion and research for years to come.” Still, the book was not without its detractors within the scientific community, most notably botanist Arthur W. Galston, who wrote an article called “The Unscientific Method” in Natural History magazine in 1974 discrediting it.
The book’s influence could be felt in other films too: Ray Danton’s 1975 horror film The Kirlian Force aka Psychic Killer uses the principles of Kirlian photography to explain how a wronged man (Jim Hutton) is able to kill people long distances away through astral projection, while Hisayasu Sato’s much later 1996 film Splatter: Naked Blood features a woman under medical experimentation who never sleeps and is linked telepathically to a giant cactus, recalling the experiments of Japanese doctor Ken Hashimoto in The Secret Life of Plants book and film, whose wife communicates with a cactus, trying to teach it the Japanese alphabet.
But most importantly, The Secret Life of Plants would act as the impetus for what remains the only horror film to foreground plant communication in crime-solving: Jonathan Sarno’s 1978 film The Kirlian Witness – later retitled The Plants are Watching – which is a deliberately paced, ethereal thriller set in a long-vanished version of New York City, with a score by a pre-Friday the 13th Harry Manfredini. A woman (Nancy Boykin) who owns a plant shop (in reality Plantworks, in its original location at the corner of Mercer and Waverly in Manhattan) and has an empathic relationship with a plant, is murdered – with only the plant as a witness. Her photographer sister (Nancy Snyder, who was then part of the Circle Repertory Company run by Lanford Wilson) adopts the plant following her sister’s death, and upon reading the book The Secret Life of Plants, begins investigating her sister’s death through various methods of communication with the plant, including Kirlian photography, ESP, and polygraph indicators.
I spoke with the film’s co-writer Lamar Sanders, screenwriter, playwright and associate professor at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, who met Jonathan Sarno in a writers group in the 1970s and was roped into wearing numerous hats on the production. “This was in the 70s when independent filmmakers really didn’t have that much of a life,” he recalls. “We were part of an organization of other independent writers, and so when he was gonna make this movie he called me in to help him co-write it. I cast the film, and had a falling out with him, and he started directing and he was totally incompetent, and he had to call me back in because the actors wouldn’t talk to him. So because I had cast them and auditioned them, I ended up having to walk them through the second half of the movie, and he had to stand on the sidelines. Which is hilarious because when you look at the film, all it says is ‘a film by Jonathan Sarno.’” [Efforts to locate Sarno himself were unsuccessful.]
As for the film’s use of Kirlian photography and direct references to the experiments of Cleve Backster, Sanders says, “That I will give Jonathan credit for, that was the initial idea behind the whole thing. And the book The Secret Life of Plants was our only reference. I did do some research on the place in Scotland – Findhorn – where a lot of these beliefs originated, I remember reading about that and we incorporated that into the script.” Findhorn is an eco-community founded in the 1960s by a group of people with varying backgrounds in Christian, Sufi and Rosicrucian philosophies and Theosophy, as well as a belief in aliens and ESP, though their mandate today is primarily ecological over spiritual and they have over 400 residents who live and work communally.
“It was basically treated as a gimmick to get suspense,” Sanders continues, “because when I was writing it with him, when he called me back to work on it again, it really didn’t make much sense, which is why he had my wife write a voiceover. The big issue was we didn’t know who was gonna be the killer. Jonathan didn’t really want any blood. He thought he was making an art movie. And I told him the best we could hope for here is a cult movie. So you need some violence!”
The film was shot by Joao Fernandez, who was Gerard Damiano’s cinematographer for Deep Throat, The Devil in Miss Jones
and Legacy of Satan, before graduating to action and horror films in the 1980s. “The entire crew, with the exception of me, all came out of porno,” Sanders says (even Harry Manfredini had something of a porn pedigree, having scored the supernatural adult film Through the Looking Glass in 1976), “And Joao went on to shoot action movies, he was a very talented cinematographer. But a bunch of the crew – and I knew a bunch of them – were NYU graduates. And in those days, porn was the only thing that was shot in 35mm that you could work on without dealing with the unions. But they had a lot of experience from doing so many porn shoots. My wife remembers one time when Jonathan was nervous as hell because it was time to pay the crew, and he didn’t have the money for our paychecks. And he knew this was a hardcore crew – and you know the pornography business was controlled by the mob in those days – so anybody who had worked on porn had to deal with mob guys. It was colorful! Towards the end Joao walked off the film because we didn’t get fed well. So I remember on the shoot one day before it ended, he just said to hell with this and left. And his assistant cameraman shot the last three days of the film. So that’s the kind of film it was. Where people came and went and mostly were pissed off!”
According to a 1978 review in the Miami News coinciding with the film’s festival premiere, the film was inspired by a true story involving one of Cleve Backster’s experiments: the 1968 Hoffman-La Roche murder case in New Jersey. According to the article, Backster conducted interviews with suspects in the presence of plants that had been at the murder scene, and his polygraph recorded violent activity from the plants in the presence of one suspect, who later confessed to the murder. The ‘witness testimony’ was deemed inadmissible in court, but the prosecution was able to convict him based on other evidence.
However, this can’t be true, most notably because the murder this refers to – that of 22-year old Joan Freeman, who was a secretary at the Hoffman-La Roche pharmaceutical plant when her head was beaten in and her throat slashed on site – is still unsolved. The case was reopened in 2005 when another worker at the same company was found murdered and floating in a water tank on the property. According to the book The Secret Life of Plants, Backster was called in to administer his polygraph to two plants who witnessed Freeman’s murder, but there was no conclusive evidence (even by Backster’s criteria), and no convictions came out of it.
Backster’s experiments on plants have never attained the credibility he was hoping for in his lifetime, largely because his results haven’t been successfully reproduced to meet the scientific community’s standards. “Some of the experiments they were doing on plants in the 70s, they were damaging the plants when they were putting the electrodes on them,” says Nicholas Money, “and there was too much bias in their results, so when other researchers tried to replicate things they couldn’t, and that was the death knell to that idea. I mean it’s so easy as a scientist to be misled by an interesting result, we’ve seen countless examples in physics and chemistry, but over time hopefully the experiments will be repeated and will actually show whether or not the phenomenon is real. It’s like ghost researchers, right? I mean, many people believe in ghosts but we don’t have scientific evidence for the persistence of personalities after people pass on. Science in the end would root that out if there were ghosts. We don’t know at this point, I suppose.”
CORPSE-FINDERS, POO PRINTS AND STINKER JUICE: FORENSIC BOTANY
“i am the most important species in my body.
but one dead boy makes the whole forest
a grave. & he’s in there, in me, in the middle
of all that green.”
- Danez Smith, Undetectable
The kind of botanical crime-solving depicted in The Kirlian Witness, and derived from the various experiments collected and documented in the book The Secret Life of Plants has been, fairly or otherwise, relegated to the realm of new age sciences that the scientific community at large has sought to distance itself from. But there are other, more practical ways that plants are used in solving murder cases, and this field of science has been known, at least since the early 1980s, as forensic botany.
“They’re completely different fields working to completely different ends,” says Mark Pilkingon. “The research of Vogel, Backster and others was intended to demonstrate that plants were self-aware – conscious – in some way, displayed emotional responses to events around them, and were capable of receiving and transmitting information over long distances. These fit in with ideas about telepathy and parapsychology that were popular at the time in both countercultural and establishment circles – the CIA began doing serious telepathy research in the mid-70s for instance. Forensic botany is concerned with the way that plant biology can be used to extract information from a crime scene – for instance plant materials inside or outside of a body can point to the time and location that its life ended. It’s similar to the field of forensic entomology, in which insects are used to the same ends.” According to science writer Jessica Snyder Sachs, who authored the book Corpse: Nature, Forensics and the Struggle to Pinpoint Time of Death (2001), forensic entomology likewise “burst onto the scene” in the 1980s, creating a triptych of specialized scientific fields that offered a new approach to forensics: namely, forensic botanists, mycologists and entymologists – most recently expanded to included palynologists, or pollen scientists – who often work in tandem to aid in criminal investigations.
At a 1982 medical examiners’ conference in Florida, forensic botanist David Hall gave a talk that caught the attention of local law enforcement, who invited him to aid in murder case. During his talk, he mentioned that layers of leaves at a crime scene can be peeled back like the pages of a book. In this particular case, a skeleton had been found in a ravine, and Hall was brought in to help determine time of death by examining the terrain surrounding the victim’s tibia, which was laying across a five inch tall turkey oak seedling. “Removing the bone, Hall saw a full formed leaf with a distinct black band where the bone had shaded and killed the underlying chlorophyll,” writes Snyder Sachs in her book. By looking at the growth patterns of the leaves, Hall was able to determine time of death to within a week, and that was enough to identify the victim from missing person reports.
Though Hall had been a forensic botanist since the early 1970s, and had worked on several other rape and murder cases in the intervening decade, he was still one of the few working in that specific field. But as he points out, forensic botany goes back much further than that. The most famous such case is also one of its earliest: the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby in 1932. On March 1, 1932, the infant son of aviator Charles Lindbergh – famous for flying the first solo, non-stop transatlantic flight – was kidnapped from his New Jersey home. Despite a ransom being paid, on May 12, the baby’s body was found not far from the Lindbergh home. Its head had been bashed in.
It took two years to identify the killer, but the case was aided by a wood specialist, who was able to identify the source of a homemade ladder that went up to the baby’s window. He was able to determine that not only the wood but a specific planing method had been used that identified the mill the wood likely came from, tracing the mill to a series of distributors and lumber yards – 30 of them in New York and New Jersey – which eventually confirmed the kidnapper. It was a botanical match-game, but it worked. At the time they were looking to match the plant with the killer, not realizing that vegetal investigation could also yield a more accurate time of death than many other methods.
Everything from tree rings to root growth to fungal colony patterns and pollen migration can be used to establish time of death and trace a killer. Already in the 1920s, tree rings were being used to discern past history. But most archaeologists were using this info to study climate change and settlement history, not murder cases. A different type of tree artifact – a bark analysis – was used to determine whether the carving “Ted Bundy ‘78” on a tree in Bountiful, Utah had in fact been the signature of the prolific serial killer, who was tied to the disappearance of local teenager Debbie Kent in 1974. If the written date was that of the carving itself, it was determined it couldn’t be Bundy, as he had been arrested in spring 1978 in Florida, where he’d been claiming victims since his prison break the previous summer. But there was speculation that the number may have been carved in 1974, and represented Debbie Kent’s place in Bundy’s suspected body count. Luckily, through an extensive bark analysis they were able to determine that the carving had in fact been done in 1978, when Bundy was behind bars, and was merely the work of a tasteless prankster.
As Snyder Sachs asserts in her book, the three timepieces pathologists established in the 19th century to determine time of death – rigor mortis, algor mortis and livor mortis – become useless after 24 hours (and are only marginally helpful in the first place). In the 20th century these methods expanded to examining stomach contents as an indicator, as digestion halts immediately when a person dies. In 1988, retired Colorado plant ecologist Jane Bock was one of the founders of NecroSearch International, a non-profit organization of scientists, law enforcement and other experts who volunteer their time to help locate clandestine gravesites. Forensic botany has played a role in a number of the hundreds of cases they have consulted on, and surprisingly what constitutes ‘botany’ in many of these cases is identifying plant cells in stomach contents, as well as “poo-matching” – such as the case where the robber of a Church’s poor box had a unexpected bout of diarrhea at the crime scene, or a murderer whose victim defecated on him in the throes of death. Who do you call when you want to match crime scene poo with, uh… other poo? Apparently you call a forensic botanist!
The latter case: In 1996 a woman was raped and murdered after leaving a party. Before leaving she was seen arguing with a man who was on day-leave from a local jail. When her body was found the next day, and witnesses identified the prisoner as a possible suspect, the clothing he’d worn to the party was confiscated for analysis. There was fecal matter on his clothing, and Jane Bock and her team at NecroSearch were able to determine that the plant matter in the feces was an identical match to that of the victim, who had complained of an upset stomach at the party and subsequently “poo printed” her murderer.
Putrefaction is also helpful in determining time of death. Which is where The Body Farm comes in.
In 1982, The Journal of Forensic Sciences published first news of The Body Farm, founded by Tennessee anthropologist William Bass (and later the inspiration for a Patricia Cornwell novel of the same name). Dubbed ‘Stinker Juice’ by local law enforcement, who often had to deal with complaints from nearby residents claiming to be overrun with the smells of the dead, The Body Farm is a research compound operated by the University of Tennessee utilizing a mix of botany, entymology, mycology and chemical biology to study the effects of decomposition on corpses that are donated to the farm. There, the corpses lie exposed to the elements, to insects and scavengers. “They wanted to find out things like, if we put a corpse in the woods, what will happen to it?” explains Nicholas Money. “And what might be the indicators we could find that might help us to locate corpses in the woods, how long does it take for a corpse to break down? I mean that’s a really important question. So if you find bodily remains in the woods and there’s still some visible skin tissue, well, how long is it before that would disappear in nature? And that would give you some idea of how long that corpse has been in that location. They were putting a timeline on it, looking at the science of decay, because nobody had really done this before. When they started doing this, specialists in fungi, and entomologists were interested in seeing what organisms would show up in connection with decaying bodies.” Since the founding of the original Body Farm, five more such locations have been established throughout the United States.
Further to this, the Body Farm’s work was relevant to mycologist Nicholas P. Money’s own research into fungi that show up in the human body when the immune system is damaged. “It interested me at that time whether there was some pattern,” he says, “whether the same things that cause disease in living humans might have a predilection for growing on dead humans too.” I pointed out that, if our immune systems are down, it’s as if these fungi think we’re dying and start trying to break us down as food. “That’s absolutely it,” he says. “Our immune defenses actually keep these fungi at bay, because otherwise we’re a good source of food! A lot of fat and protein they’d be pretty happy to consume.”
There is a particular fungus among us – the Hebeloma syriense – known colloquially as ‘the corpse-finder’ – that colonizes dead bodies, so that appearance of its mushrooms can, in theory, be evidence of a crime scene.
“There have been cases going back to the 1960s, perhaps going back even earlier than that, when this particular mushroom was found to be associated with dead animals, says Money. “There was a pattern that was found such that if you dig around where you were finding these mushrooms in a forest, you’d often find the corpse of an animal. And that pattern was seen in more than one country. But I’m talking about forest animals, like rats, mice and squirrels and so forth. So not human corpses. What’s happening is, it’s a fungus that really likes lots of nitrogen, nitrogen’s an element that drives a lot of plant and fungal growth, so if you’ve got something that’s got some muscle on it that dies, this particular mushroom seems to really enjoy that particular banquet, that pulse of nutrients. So if there was a human corpse there’s no reason that wouldn’t stimulate the mushroom in the same way, but I’m not sure that’s actually been documented. I think it might have been used in a Patricia Cornwell novel.”
THE PLANTS ARE WAITING
“’Here is the very first and the very last story of you. Stories are a learning tool for the soul. Once you remember who we are, you no longer need any story at all.’ Thus spoke the plant.”
-Monica Gagliano, Thus Spoke the Plant
In 2016 there was a Think Tank on Plant Communication in Seattle hosted by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. It was at this conference that former marine biologist Monica Gagliano first publicly presented the “remarkable encounter of scientific insight and plant wisdom” that became the foundation for the 2018 book Thus Spoke the Plant: A Remarkable Journey of Groundbreaking Discoveries and Personal Encounters with Plants, which she claims was written by plants, with herself as co-author. Here she described her own experiences with plant consciousness and communication, which had drawn her to the Peruvian jungle to commune with an aboriginal shaman and a tree named Socoba, who had summoned her to the South American continent through dreams. “This schizophrenic discrepancy has haunted western thinking throughout its history,” she says, “accrediting a voice to plants and even acknowledging them as wise oracles and teachers, only to take it all away in the next breath.” The book proposes that plants are not separate from us at all, but that we are all connected through a network of communication that has been drowned out by the noise of human civilization. More than anything else, she claims her book is the result of deep listening – in some cases assisted by natural psychedelics – which is why she attributes its authorship to the plants themselves. The book is in many ways flighty and far-fetched from a conventional scientific standpoint, but shows that the philosophies espoused by Bose, Backster, Vogel and their successors are very much alive today.
“While Backster’s historical research has been discredited, a new wave of research into the behavior of plants, molds and other vegetal lifeforms has emerged in recent years that is perhaps less sensational in its presentation, but no less remarkable in its claims,” says Mark Pilkington. “Plant scientist Merlin Sheldrake, for example, has been researching communication networks between tree and plant roots and mycorrhizal fungi; in doing so he is continuing the work of his father Rupert Sheldrake, a parapsychologist whose ideas about ‘morphic resonance’ were once considered heretical and were very influential in New Age Circles. A book by a German Forester, Peter Wohlleben, The Hidden Life of Trees – whose title consciously echoes The Secret Life of Plants – has become a global bestseller and again looks at how trees sense, feel and communicate with each other, and other species.”
As with Gagliano’s personal experience, Pilkington proposes that the use of psychedelics can break down the barriers that make such communication seem impossible. “The most direct way to bring plant biology and transcendent human experience together is through the ingestion of psychoactive plants like the peyote cactus, or the vines and barks used to brew ayahuasca,” he offers. “But while Backster’s research may have been discredited, it can be viewed, and appreciated, as a period of reflection of our growing understanding of our integrated relationship with the world around us, from plankton to plants, weevils to whales. It was an attempt to demonstrate, through processes that looked convincingly like science, something that many of us have always felt, that we are just one tiny element in life’s vast, rich and eternal tapestry.”
But where does ‘science’ stand on all this? Are those kinds of studies – where scientists are testing plants’ emotional responses to trauma, for instance – just non-existent anymore? “The devil’s in the details,” says Nicholas Money. “You used the term ‘emotional response,’ right? It depends what one means by an emotional response. There are philosophers who would tell you that the only organisms capable of emotions are humans, which is patently ridiculous; if you’re a cat or a dog lover you know that your pets are emotional. But when it comes to plants and fungi and so forth, I don’t know whether we’d ever really describe that as emotion. But then again the experiment I described where you’re starving one part of an organism and feeding the other and they say, ‘wow I’ve got to get over there where that food is,’ could you describe that as an emotion? Yeah, I think metaphorically you could. There’s no brain there that’s processing this, but in a sense that’s the basis of all our emotions too. We have these rich emotional lives but in the end they’re all based on the same biological mechanisms.”
It’s all a response to some sort of survival need, I propose.
“Absolutely,” Money says, “and responding to chemicals, right? I mean, that doesn’t reduce the richness of the human experience that everything in the end comes down to biochemistry, but it must. For a scientist like me, we don’t recognize supernatural forces, but that doesn’t denigrate the experience of being alive.”
Original collage images by Guy Maddin
Special Thanks to Nicholas P. Money, Mark Pilkington, Jasper Sharp, David Hall and Guy Maddin.
Kier-La Janisse is a film writer and programmer, Owner/Artistic Director of Spectacular Optical Publications and founder of The Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies. She is the author of A Violent Professional: The Films of Luciano Rossi (2007) and House of Psychotic Women: An Autobiographical Topography of Female Neurosis in Horror and Exploitation Films (2012, currently in development as a series with Rook Films) and contributed chapters to Destroy All Movies!! The Complete Guide to Punks on Film (2011), Recovering 1940s Horror: Traces of a Lost Decade (2014) The Canadian Horror Film: Terror of the Soul (2015) and We Are the Martians: The Legacy of Nigel Kneale (2017). She co-edited and published the anthology books KID POWER! (2014), Satanic Panic: Pop-Cultural Paranoia in the 1980s (2015), Lost Girls: The Phantasmagorical Cinema of Jean Rollin (2017) and Yuletide Terror: Christmas Horror on Film and Television (2017), and is currently co-curating (with Clint Enns) an anthology book on the films of Robert Downey, Sr. and writing a monograph about Monte Hellman’s Cockfighter. She serves on the boards for both Fantastic Fest and the American Genre Film Archive.
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