Trees Communicate, Nourish Each Other
Chitter chatter in the forest. Are trees talking to each other? Yes, in a sense. Some research has shown that trees have a unique way of expressing themselves to one another.
About twenty years ago, an ecologist named Suzanne Simard “discovered that trees communicate their needs and send each other nutrients via a network of latticed fungi buried in the soil.” She has continued her research to learn how trees, using fungal filigrees, “send warning signals about environmental change, search for kin, and transfer their nutrients to neighboring plants before they die.” e360.yale.edu/features/exploring_how_and_why_trees_talk_to_each_other
Back in 1997, she used radioactive isotopes of carbon to determine that paper birch and Douglas fir trees were interacting with each other. Dr. Simard has found an elaborate system “which she compares to neural networks in human brains.” Her current studies are focused on the impact of climate change, pine beetle infestations, and logging.
Dr. Simard tells us all trees form symbiotic relationships with fungi. Fungi cannot photosynthesize, but they can explore the soil. Part of the fungi, called mycelium, will pick up nutrients and water and bring it back to the tree. The tree then exchanges these offerings from the fungi for a sugar-like substance the tree makes during photosynthesis. This underground network is one avenue with which trees exchange information.
There is another article online from Smithsonian.com that is quite entertaining. Richard Grant writes that “wise old mother trees feed their saplings with liquid sugar and warn the neighbors when danger approaches.” He continues with stating “reckless youngsters take foolhardy risks with leaf-shedding, light-chasing and excessive drinking, and usually pay with their lives.” Check out the full article here: smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/the-whispering-trees-180968084
Grant refers to German forester and author, Peter Wohlleben, as a tree whisperer. He notes that trees are social, sophisticated and intelligent. They cooperate with each other and maintain relationships. They do this by sending chemical, hormonal and electrical signals. Not only do they communicate underground, they send pheromones and other scent signals through the air.
Well over 100 years ago, John Muir knew something fantastical was happening in a forest. He held a “deeply religious response to trees as living, sentient beings” and endowed them with a “kind of personhood.” We can thank Muir for his observations which helped lay the framework for the protection of our wilderness areas: gtu.edu/events/talking-trees-john-muirs-nature-spirituality
This is an amazingly fascinating topic to me. As a horticulturist, I have always thought we underestimate plant intelligence. The next time you take a walk in the woods, consider pausing for a moment to reflect on the fact that plants are communicating with each other. Give a tree a hug and a pat on the bark. Could we one day find out they are whispering about us behind our backs? If so, I wonder what they would say.
Kelley Rawlsky has an M.S. in horticulture and is the director of Bringing People and Plants Together, an organization dedicated to bringing horticulture education and therapy to the community. For more information: PeopleAndPlantsTogether @gmail.com or follow us on Facebook.