Do Trees Talk To Each Other?
16th November 2020
A walk in a forest full of trees can be rejuvenating and healing.
Each tree stands tall and solitary, yet there is so much going on in the forest that a naked eye can’t see.
Imagine a chitter-chatter between a collection of trees.
Is it possible that trees actually do talk to each other?
Just two decades ago, forest ecologist Suzanne Simard from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, found out that trees are immersed in deep relationships with each other, communicate often and over a vast distance.
This astonishing discovery came about while researching her doctoral thesis.
And if trees do talk to each other, how do they do it? Simard suggests that trees communicate their needs and send each other nutrients such as phosphorus and nitrogen via a complex network of fungal filigrees hidden underground.
This sophisticated and interconnected social network of latticed fungal filigrees has been nicknamed the “internet of fungus” or “Wood Wide Web”.
Simard compares these symbiotic networks to neural networks in human brains…
And it is through this elaborate system that trees are able to send warning signals about environmental change, search for kin, share resources and nutrients with neighbouring plants before they die, and, surprisingly, use their leaves to sabotage unwelcome plant-eating animals and insects by spreading toxic chemicals that repel the intruders.
Simard, together with her research team has helped change scientists’ attitude towards the interactions between plants. “A forest is a cooperative system,” she said in an interview with Yale Environment 360.
“To me, using the language of “communication” made more sense because we were looking at not just resource transfers, but things like defence signalling and kin recognition signalling. We as human beings can relate to this better. If we can relate to it, then we’re going to care about it more. If we care about it more, then we’re going to do a better job of stewarding our landscapes.”
And now, an international team of scientists believe almost all plant species worldwide are in relationships with fungi living in the soil.
These fungi can connect one tree root system to another tree root system to create what’s known as a mycorrhizal network.
Some of the important things that the mycorrhizal network can influence include survival, growth, health, and behaviour of the trees linked within it.
Simply plugging into mycelial networks makes a plants’ internal core respond quicker and more efficient, a phenomenon called “priming”.
How trees naturally communicate, even if quietly, above and underground using sound, scents and signals have been an amazingly fascinating topic for years.
In his book, The Hidden Life of Trees, Peter Wohlleben, a German forester and author, came to a similar realisation and uses a human family analogy to describe how adult trees, dubbed “mother trees”, play a key role in supporting other neighbouring trees as well as “suckle their offsprings”.
Trees are interconnected, supporting each other as they grow, sharing nutrients with those fighting diseases or struggling.
The key aspect of this interconnectedness is to create an ecosystem that mitigates the impact of extremes of heat and cold for the whole group.
As a result of such interactions, trees among the same family or between species are protected and can live to be very old. In contrast, solitary trees have a tough time of it and in most cases die much earlier than those in a group.
Wohlleben views the forest as a sophisticated, superorganism of unique individuals — and spends his time managing an ancient beech forest reserve in Germany’s Eifel region.
In his interview with The Guardian, he explains that after stumbling upon an old stump still living after about 400-500 years, without any green leaves: “Every living being needs nutrition. The only explanation was that it was supported by the neighbour trees via the roots with a sugar solution.”
It was at this moment and many more after that he opened his mind to the trees.
He further states that “As a forester, I learned that trees are competitors that struggle against each other, for light, for space, and there I saw that it’s just the opposite. Trees are very interested in keeping every member of this community alive.”
Wohlleben talks about trees admiringly and in a way that makes them seem quite human — describing them as “plant elephants” — and wood as “tree bones”. He believes that human connection with the natural world isn’t lost, but perhaps distant because for the last 20 decades, scientists have taught us that nature works without a soul.
Both Simard and Wohlleben alike, would no doubt agree that conservation is key. Understanding that trees are masters of connection and quiet wisdom could be what leads to a more sustainable commercial-wood industry.
Because when it’s all said and done, the influence of our natural forests to the well-being and survival of humankind are extraordinarily vast and far-reaching.
There is an incredible body of research conducted in North America and Europe which indicate that trees are “sentient beings” — with the ability to transmit information and communicate among each other in ways that enable a beneficial tree-to-tree sharing system and aid in their collective survival.
When we recognise that there’s a lot happening under the surface of the forest floor, perhaps we can then begin to have a broader understanding on the significance of worldwide forest conservation, and how this phenomenon is crucial even to our own survival.
The evidence pointing to how these mysterious gigantic beings communicate and defend themselves against imminent attacks can also inform smart ways to preserve and replenish our greenspace respectfully in years to come.