Science and Technology

The society of trees

M Ramesh | Updated on May 09, 2021

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Exactly 120 years ago to this day — May 10 — Jagdish Chandra Bose demonstrated in the Royal Society, London, that plants have life — and feelings. Since then, scientists have built on his work quite a bit. It is now known that trees in forests are a society — they live as a community, share nutrients and medicines, warn each other of dangers, and support and protect their kin.

Suzanne Simard, who teaches forest and conservation sciences at the University of British Columbia, Canada, has been fascinated by forests since childhood. She is known for her seminal work on how trees interact, communicate and exchange stuff through a vast underground network of roots and fungi. Scientists have known for some time of the interdependence between mycorrhizal fungi and trees — the fungi help roots absorb nutrients and, in return, get their food (dextrose) from the trees. Simard has proved that trees use mycorrhizal networks to interact with other trees and plants, regardless of species. Injecting two young trees covered with plastic bags with two different carbon isotopes, she discovered that each isotope showed up in the other tree, indicating an exchange underground.

Simard has recently published a book, Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering Wisdom in the Forest, in which she says there stand in the forests some matriarchal trees that glue the forests together, taking care of other flora in the vicinity.

Also, “older trees are able to discern which seedlings are their own kin”. They provide the little ones food and water “just as we do with our own children”. Simard told Scientific American recently that trees, through “structures that are very similar to our brain, they have all the characteristics of intelligence: behaviours, responses, perceptions, learning and archiving of memory”.

Published on May 09, 2021

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