Gently Caressing Plants Prevents Gray Mold Buildup, Say Swiss Scientists

By Josh Lieberman on September 16, 2013 1:01 PM EDT

thale cress
Caressing plants triggers immune defenses that can stave off gray mold, scientists in Switzerland say. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Tenderly rubbing plant foliage helps them resist mold, according to scientists in Switzerland. Scientists at Fribourg University found that after being gently caressed, plants experience "mechanical stress," which activates beneficial defense mechanisms. In nature, that happens when plants experience stress from things like wind and rain. But houseplants and greenhouse plants aren't exposed to those elements, so can benefit from a little rubbing.

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In the study, the Fribourg University scientists rubbed thale cress plants between thumb and forefinger. Just a few minutes after rubbing the plants, the scientists noted a number of internal changes in the thale cress. They saw an increase of reactive oxygen species, chemically reactive molecules containing oxygen, and the thale cress's outer leaf layer became more permeable, which is thought to be an immune response. The plant leaves then became more resistant to gray mold.  

Lehcen Benikhlef, a plant biologist at Fribourg University led the study titled "Perception of soft mechanical stress in Arabidopsis leaves activates disease resistance," which was published in the BMC Plant Biology. Benikhlef said that previous studies have shown the harming a plant causes similar responses. But in this study, Benikhlef and his colleagues showed that one needn't get so rough with plants in order to trigger beneficial immune responses.

"Wounding inflicted by clamping leaves with forceps or puncturing with a needle induces a strong immunity of [thale cress to gray mold]," said Benikhlef, referring to earlier studies. "Here we show that a gentle mechanical stress can also be perceived in a differentiated way and lead to specific plant responses that include resistance against a virulent necrotrophic fungus."

The study probably doesn't come as much of a surprise to Prince Charles, who famously extolled the virtues of talking to plants to encourage growth in 1986.

"I just come and talk to the plants, really--very important to talk to them," Prince Charles said. "They respond."

There's no word on whether rubbing was involved.

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