The plant that makes phone calls or tweets if it needs water has become one of the icons of Arduino and the Maker movement. Now, a newcomer to the talking plant market, Parrot's Flower Power, begs a reconsideration of the original project and a survey of other devices that connect people and plants.

Developed in 2006, Botanicalls has been featured in mainstream news (like the New York Times but also lesser known American newspapers) as well as in Wired (of course) and is cited any time anyone needs to explain Internet of Things and the usefulness of Arduino. We at MakeTank cited it in a talk we gave in rural Tuscany a few weeks ago, receiving groans from a rather agricultural-based audience, but your average hipster's houseplant can really benefit from the device's moisture-sensor-induced reminders.

Botanicalls kit from Sparkfun (developed 2006)

Available to buy in kit form since 2008, with its most recent version since 2011 (it costs 99$), what I have always wondered was why Botanicalls has maintained its rather geeky-looking original design: a leaf-shaped PCB holds an Ethernet module and all the required parts open to the air. Although there are excellent step by step assembly instructions, Botanicalls requires soldering and a fair amount of time to produce, in the end, a novelty: a digital read-out of a single plant's moisture, communicated via Twitter. My dad, a bona fide green thumb with hundreds of plants, gets this information and more using a rather simpler device pictured below (that costs 10$).

Standard plant moisture, light and PH reader

It's not spectacular results but the concept behind the Botanicalls project that makes it interesting. It is a pioneer of Internet of Things, so much that an exemplar is now conserved at the MOMA after having been included in a 2011 exhibit that surveys the interaction between people and things since the 1960s. And it anticipates users' needs - most people, especially those of us who know more about the internet than about gardening, need help keeping their plants alive.

Over the years, other projects that connect plants to their owners via the internet have been developed. For example, Bitponics, a sensor and online platform successfully funded on Kickstarter in 2012, helps you monitor the humidity, light, temperature, Ph and nutrients of all your houseplants (not just one at a time).

Bitponics

Outdoor gardeners who wish to grow their own food can use Grow the Planet to plan and monitor the progress of their vegetables, as well as share photos and food with and get tips from the community, although lunar and agricultural knowledge is applied digitally to the garden rather than using connected sensors. Grow the Planet and Bitponics fit into a recent trend of returning to "roots" (pun intended) - part of a movement towards reconnecting with the physical world, without leaving behind progress we've made in the digital.

And although those cited above are consumer products, even the professional agricultural sector benefits from connected sensors via wifi. Numerous products are available on the market for greenhouse owners and other growers, without the social layer. While some farmers, like the ones we met in Tuscany, disdain these "gimmicks," sensors can help objectively monitor elements that can make or break a crop, and thus have an economic impact.

Parrot's Flower Power

Successful growing is not the only goal of these products: growing stuff is gameified by these products. While Grow the Planet is socially oriented, the newest entry in this market, Flower Power, practically turns your houseplant into a tamagotchi.

In the video above, our interaction with plants is brought into the world of Sims, and the plant's natural messages are reinterpreted through the aid of a bluetooth-enabled device connected to a smartphone that speaks the more human language of "give me water, sun, fertilizer, etc." You'll have to buy one sensor for each plant and pair it with its plant type in the app's database so that the app provides information specific to the type of plant you're trying to grow properly, and also permits sharing photos and information. At CES, Flower Power was named "Product of the Future" by Popular Science; no market price has yet been announced.

Whether you're trying not to kill a single houseplant or need help setting up a whole vegetable garden, there's a Internet of Things product for you. Now that we can successfully dialogue with our plants, would someone please invent a cat or dog collar that tweets what the heck our pets are thinking?

 

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