Gourmet Meals for Plants

The human food chain starts with light. Plants take in the sunshine and grow, then we combine plants and plant-eating animals into various gastronomic masterpieces in a process so fascinating there are entire websites (!) all about it. But no one stops to think: Did the plant that had to die for my meal enjoy its own food?

No one except Jonathon Keats, an artist in San Francisco who's the first person in the world to offer fine dining to rosebushes. "The Photosynthetic Restaurant," an art installation that opens April 16 in Sacramento's Crocker Art Museum, will treat plants to menus of carefully calibrated light created by setting up special colored hanging filters over rosebushes in the garden. As the sun moves across the sky, the color of light shining on the plants changes, much as a human diner changes from the appetizer to the main course.

To calculate what wavelengths his floral diners might enjoy, Keats poked into research performed by the United States Department of Agriculture and the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Huh?

"Siberia has a really short growing season," Keats explains. "So as you can imagine, they have to work on producing fresh food year-round. Most of the other research I worked with was generated when the U.S. thought we were going to be sending people to Mars, and we were researching how we could grow food in space."

Turns out that plants are equipped with photoreceptors that are sensitive to various kinds of light, changing the way they grow under certain wavelengths. Cheflike, Keats began combining the types into "recipes" for arranging the colored filters. He takes us through one of his three recipes:

"We start off with a middle red, which is associated with a high level of photosynthesis within the plant, and you get a lot of carbohydrates." In other words, it's the bread basket. "Then the recipe goes to a deep blue, which promotes protein. The main dish," says Keats.

"Next is light in the far red end of the spectrum. That makes plants think there's another plant growing nearby that might compete for resources. It's a touch of danger, a spice, like we might use a habanero pepper. After that, we do a light blue, which is like a calming palate cleanser, then an orange for a carbohydrate-rich dessert, then finally a blue-green, which lowers the amount of photosynthesis going on within the plant. Like a calming digestif."

Image courtesy of Jonathon Keats, of clouds as pictured through four of Keats' filters

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