Tree rings

NYU grad students devise a way to nurture your favorite plants, long distance.

Photo: Beth Levendis

Imagine answering your cell phone only to discover it’s your Fiddle Leaf fig tree (Ficus lyrata) on the other end demanding you give it some love—and water. As if you weren’t getting enough shit already from your girlfriend, now you can get it from your plants, too, thanks to four students at New York University’s Interactive Telecommunications program. “We call the project Botanicalls,” says Kate Hartman, who developed the concept with Rob Faludi, Kati London and Rebecca Bray. “We got the idea from people complaining about how they didn’t have time to take care of their plants.”

Hartman and team started by inserting soil and moisture sensors into ten test plants, ranging from a scented geranium to a Rex begonia, and then linking them into a local network to monitor the level of moisture in each plant. Too much or too little H2O prompted a call in which the plants said such guilt-inducing things as, “I’m desperately in need of water. I feel horrible and probably look dehydrated.” Sometimes, though, they’d call just to say, “Thank you.” Harman says they decided to use the phone (as opposed to text or e-mail) because it’s the best way to build a bond.

Indeed, each plant was given a voice in keeping with its particular species. For example, a fast-growing spider plant had a friendly, bubbly voice, while a cactus was made to sound, well, prickly.

Right now, plant-generated calls are being routed to a public telephone near their lab, but over the summer the crew will explore ways of turning their experiment into a service for consumers. And like any good relationship, Botanicalls will go both ways: You’ll be able dial up your plant to check its condition. “Basically, we want to give plants a voice,” explains Harman, “so they can express their needs when they have them.”—Daniel Derouchie

To learn more go to