A few months ago, I walked into Guestroom Records, a small record shop in Louisville, Kentucky, and came face-to-face with a six-foot-tall cardboard display, the kind typically bearing the likeness of a pop star strumming on a guitar or some oversized, eye-catching cover art. This one, instead, bore a subdued, inky sketch of two humans leaning towards each other fondly, their hands clasped around an absolutely monstrous houseplant; either a calathea plant or a leopard lily based on the markings.
Beneath this illustration — a selection of “Mother Earth’s Plantasia” records that had already been heavily picked over.
This was my first introduction to the world of “plant music,” a niche genre that has ties to 1970s West Coast New Age and, thanks to the ongoing houseplant boom and a new generation of composers, is blossoming again today.
“Plantasia” was released in 1976 by electronic music pioneer Mort Garson, a Moog devotee known for his album-length synth compositions like “The Zodiac: Cosmic Sounds” and “Music for Sensuous Lovers.” After connecting with Lynn and Joel Rapp, who ran Mother Earth Plant Boutique on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles, the three conceived the idea for this record.
Despite the fact that the record’s subtitle is Warm Earth Music for Plants . . . and the People Who Love Them, “Plantasia,” with its sprightly electronic hums and crescendos, wasn’t really meant for human ears.
The record was released in the wake of the 1973 book “The Secret Life of Plants” by Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird.
Filled with speculations about spiritual energy holograms and plant telepathy, the book is a relic of pseudoscience — one that was vastly popular and even spawned a documentary and an eventual concept album from Stevie Wonder, “Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants.” (While mocked at the time — the Village Voice said it was riddled with “the painful awkwardness of a barely literate sidewalk sermon” — critics have come around to recognize the album’s brilliance in drawing parallels between ecology and the black experience).
At the time, The New York Times wrote that “[the authors] have concocted a popular‐science pastiche of these New Occult hopes and brought them out into the marketplace, glibly tailored to bid for middle‐class respectability.” But perhaps the most enduring claim is that plants grow better with music.
Science is still out on this, the truth probably falling in a gray area in which plants do detect certain audio vibrations; one interesting study out of the University of Missouri found that plants responded to the sound of insect herbivores feeding. There’s also the distinct possibility that the kind of plant owners who would play special music for their plants are likely remembering to give them enough water, fertilizer, and sunshine, which would encourage healthy growth anyway.
Regardless, “Plantasia” was a quiet hit and since it could only be secured with a purchase of a houseplant from Mother Earth, it eventually became a hot item for electronic music collectors and crate-diggers. It was endearingly elusive — that is until its re-release earlier this year.
“We've had been working on reissuing this album for many years,” said Caleb Braaten, founder of Sacred Bones Records, which reissued “Plantasia.”
“It took a lot of time to track down Mort's daughter, Day, and to figure out the particulars,” Braaten said. “The houseplant boom is certainly a real thing and I think does tie into the increased interest in the record, but the music stands on its own as a beautiful portal into a special green world.”
According to Braaten, the response to the reissue has been “phenomenal.” The record is now in stores across the United States.
“We've been able to provide a lot of people who really wanted to bring this album home and previously either couldn't find a copy, or couldn't afford one,” Braaten said. “We've also been able to bring this music in public spaces via different gardens across the country so people can experience this music in the most ideal circumstance — in nature. It's been really rewarding.”
The houseplant boom that Braaten referenced is a real thing, especially among millennials; according to data from the 2016 National Gardening Report, out of the 6 million or so Americans who started getting into gardening — that includes indoor plants — that year, 5 million fell between the 18-to-34-year-old age bracket.
And within that age bracket are new composers, like Brendan Wells, seeking to make contemporary music for those houseplants.
Wells, a DIY punk musician, had always had an interest in plants, which was actually sparked by “The Secret Life of Plants,” a book that he describes as a “revelation and turning point in [his] life.”
“I appreciate the vintage kitsch ideas of talking to your plants to make them happy like they're your lovely little babies,” Wells said. “But ‘The Secret Life of Plants’ is very much about plants being in their own ways sentient, intelligent, and extrasensory in the sense that for example they're able to physically react to human thought.”
And as someone who struggles with anxiety and depression, Wells is reminded by plants that there is a world beyond his own thoughts.
“Plants work as a link between me and the idea that the universe is a complicated and interesting place to exist in and there is a lot more to it than what's in my head,” Wells said.
Several years ago, Wells moved to San Francisco to run a punk music magazine and — after dealing with what he describes as an unhealthy workload and environment — quit and moved back to Minneapolis in need of mental healthcare.
“It left me in a place where for a few months I couldn't listen to punk music without it triggering severe anxiety,” Wells said.
He started listening to classical-influenced and minimal music like Zomes, Penguin Cafe Orchestra, and Young Marble Giants.
“The extreme reverence for plants I had made me feel like finding Mort Garson's ‘Plantasia’ album was a conceptual revelation for being something that put music together with plants but it felt more like fun kitsch than what I wanted out of music inspired by or for plants, which was the reverential or spiritual tone I felt from a relationship in a world with plants,” Wells said.
Then Wells heard “A Rainbow in Curved Air” by Terry Reilly and said his immediate thought was, “This is music for plants.” It was deep, engaging, meditative, melodic and celebratory. He began experimenting with making music like this of his own, and the result is the project Brendan Wells Plant Music.
“To me, ideal plant music shares something in common with hymns and other worship music used to inspire a connection between yourself and something greater,” Wells said.
In the weeks since talking to Wells, I’ve left his music on for my small collection of houseplants; I’ve also left “Plantasia” on for them, too. I’m not sure if they have a preference between Garson’s synthy beats or Wells’ more reverential tones — but maybe, like humans, they prefer variety. My Philodendron just sprouted a new stalk, and that can’t be a coincidence, can it?