A walk in the woods is as comforting and healing as a hug. Forests are much beyond what we can see. Trees are extremely social beings. Communication is vital to their survival. Using their massive web of hair-like roots, trees transmit messages across hundreds of kilometers, triggering one another to share nutrients and water with those in need.
The collaboration extends into reproduction as well. The trees reproductive efforts are so coordinated that sometimes it leads to a phenomenon called ‘Mast Fruiting’. The result can be dramatic – oak trees within a limited area can yield a crop of acorns 20 times as much as normal.
Biologists who have listened to the slow, painstaking process of tree communication observed that trees are remarkably synchronized in their annual decision to produce a mast crop. When it’s a good year, majority of adult trees have a mast crop. When it’s a bad year, most have a bad year. Somehow the trees know that if only a few of them produce a mast crop, consumers will migrate to those trees for food. But if most trees in an area have a mast crop, then only about 15% is eaten, which means that there is a better chance that some of the acorns will produce new oak trees. It remains unclear whether mast fruiting is a decision made by a group of plants or is a natural response to environmental conditions.
While direct communication among trees remains an enticing observation, biologists note that trees do talk to succeeding generations via the genetic language embedded in their pollen. It is possible that in mast fruiting years, the best pollen producers make unusually large amounts of high-quality pollen spurred by common weather cues.
Trees form a symbiotic relationship with underground fungi. The fungi send mycelium, or threads, all through the soil. The mycelium networks pick up nutrients and water and bring them back to the trees and exchanges the nutrients for photosynthate (a sugar made by photosynthesis) from the trees. The mycelium network connects one tree root system to another tree root system so nutrients and water can exchange between trees.
So-called "mother trees" are connected to hundreds of other trees of the same and different species through the dense mycelium networks underground. They also nurture many young trees. Through their regular conversations, trees build up the resilience of the whole forest. When mother trees are dying, they send their wisdom to the next generation. But if we uproot many mother trees at the same time, the whole system collapses.
Older trees are not just ‘dead wood’ for us to harvest. They are the repositories of genes and mycelium networks. We must save as many mother trees as we can and reduce the practices of clearcutting and monoculture. Forests have enormous capacity to self-heal and self-regulate. By working in harmony with nature, we can help each other thrive.
Trees are talking, but are we listening?
Additional reading sources on the topic:
Yale Environment 360: Exploring How and Why Trees ‘Talk’ to Each Other
The Guardian: The man who thinks trees talk to each other