Updated: Dec 20, 2022
Photo By Adriana Pagan
Did you know that trees can talk? Trees communicate information and resources between one another every day to help each other survive. This web of information has been existing all around us for as long as humans have existed and science is just beginning to tap into this knowledge. So what are the trees saying to each other and how does it benefit their survival?
Roots play a greater role besides simply holding the tree in place. They actually help support the other trees around them as well. Similar to bees or other animals that live in groups, the survival of the species and the forest is more important to the tree than the individual plant, and this is evident in their communication and defense mechanisms. Through their roots, trees can also share the sugars that they produce in their leaves through photosynthesis in the summer and store in the roots in the winter. American Beech trees are great examples of this behavior.
Trees also use smell as a form of communication. Pheromones are chemical substances produced by an organism and released in the air that affects the behavior and or physiology of other organisms. We mammals produce them too. Every part of the life of a tree moves in slow motion, so pheromones provide a relatively quick reaction time to help prepare the surrounding trees for an incoming threat.
Trees can actually identify the saliva of insects or animals that are grazing on them, and send off pheromones to the surrounding trees. This allows the trees to identify the specific incoming threat and prepare a response tailored to that organism. Trees will then flood their leaves with chemicals that make their leaves unappetizing. In our own backyards, Oak trees flood their leaves with tannins to make their leaves bitter and unappealing, and Willows flood their leaves with salicylic acid for the same effect. Unfortunately for the willows, their response doesn’t have the same effect on humans. In fact, salicylic acid is the precursor to aspirin, so humans have used it for centuries to relieve pain, headaches, and fevers.
The flaw of pheromones is that the message will only be sent to the downwind trees, leaving the upwind trees oblivious to the incoming attack. But they have a pretty amazing solution to this problem. Trees have a symbiotic relationship with fungi in their roots which allows them to send messages at a much faster speed than they could through their own roots. Electrical signals in fungi move at about ⅓ of an inch a second compared to ⅓ of an inch a minute in the tree roots. And these signals are not restricted by the direction of the wind. In return, the fungi gets some of the sugar the tree produced through photosynthesis.
Photo by Adriana Pagan
We are just beginning to understand the language of the trees. Although their lives are in slow motion, they are still amazing and dramatic. Trees have evolved impressive defense mechanisms to ensure the survival of the species and the forest.
“The Hidden Life of Trees” by Peter Wohlleben