In the Odyssey, Homer talked about the lotus tree and its magical fruit which when eaten would make people forget their friends and homes and lose their desire to return to their native land in favour of living in idleness. In India, mythology talks about a wishing tree, otherwise known as the Kalpa Tree, to which people pray because people believe these trees have a connection to the divine1.
But beyond these mystical attributes of trees, scientists are still gathering evidence about the unique power hidden in a tree. What we are most aware of is the key role of trees in supporting our ecosystems and our own health and wellbeing. But there is more than meets the eye when it comes to these most ancient of occupants of our planet!
Incredible services trees do for our environment
We often call tress the lungs of our planet because of their unique role in providing oxygen for us to breathe and improving air quality. But they also help regulate the climate, preserve water through their root system, help limit soil degradation, and also support wildlife. Through the process of photosynthesis, trees remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and instead release oxygen, key to sustaining life on Earth.
According to information provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, one acre of forest absorbs six tons of carbon dioxide from the air and produces four tons of oxygen. This is equivalent to the oxygen needs of 18 people for an entire year 2.
What is more, trees, shrubs and turf also improve air quality as they are able to remove dust particles and pollutants such as carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide from the air.
Trees also play a role when it comes to our climate. They can ease the the effects of the sun, rain and wind. For example, the leaves of tress can act as a shield to the sun’s energy and thus help to keep temperatures at a lower level during the warmer months. Similarly, they can also help keep things warmer by protecting from strong winds, rainfall, sleet and hail.
What is more, trees are essential to the ecosystems in which they reside. Far reaching roots hold soil in place and fight erosion whereas trees absorb and store rainwater which reduces runoff and sediment deposit after storms. This helps the ground water supply recharge, it prevents the transport of chemicals into streams and prevents flooding. Fallen leaves make excellent compost that enriches soil.
Many animals, including elephants, koalas and giraffes eat leaves for nourishment. Flowers are eaten by monkeys, and nectar is a favourite of birds, bats and many insects. Hundreds of creatures call trees their home. Leaf-covered branches keep many animals, such as birds and squirrels, out of the reach of predators.
But the hidden powers of trees do not end there
Trees are an important source of nutrition as well as economic activity for our society. Trees bear nutritious fruit; their leaves and resins can be used in a multitude of ways ranging from applications in pharmaceuticals to other industrial purposes.
Quinine and aspirin are both made from bark extracts. The inner bark of some trees contains latex, the main ingredient of rubber. Timber of course is a most valuable material. Trees provide timber for building construction, furniture manufacture, tools, sporting equipment, and thousands of household items. Wood pulp is used to make paper. Wood is still used for cooking and heating by about half of the world’s population.
Trade in forest products has increased significantly over the past 50 years, especially in processed wood products such as sawn timber, pulpwood, board, and wood-based panels. The United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that wood-based panel trade has skyrocketed 800 percent in the past three decades3.
But trees also have a social value: they are an important part of every community. Our streets, parks, playgrounds and backyards are lined with trees that create a peaceful, aesthetically pleasing environment. Trees increase our quality of life by bringing natural elements and wildlife habitats into urban settings. Many neighbourhoods are also the home of very old trees that serve as historic landmarks and a great source of town pride.
Our trees have inspired paintings, literature and poems. When one considers our relationship to trees, it becomes clear that they have impacted almost every facet of our life. And so many centuries later, the continue to inspire us but also to be an object of study. This continued interest in our tress is what led to the most recent revelation about the hidden powers of trees: the wood wide web.
Trees are intelligent
Suzanne Simard, professor of forest ecology in the department of forest and conservation sciences at the University of British Columbia, believes that every tree is linked to every other tree underground. She set out to prove this by setting up the following experiment: she planted trees of the same kind alongside older trees of the same kind and subsequently planted other kinds of trees.
The older “mother” trees colonized their kin with bigger mycorrhizal networks and sent them more carbon below ground. They even reduced their own root competition to make elbow room for their “kids”. Professor Simard used isotope tracing to trace carbon moving from an injured mother tree down her trunk into the mycorrhizal network and into her neighbouring seedlings3,4.
Similar views have been expressed by Professor Stefano Mancuso who leads the International Laboratory for Plant Neurobiology at the University of Florence. He is convinced that plants are cognitive and intelligent but move much more slowly than animals so we need to record plant movement for many days. His work indicates that neighbouring bean plants compete for resources.
For example, while experiment with two climbing bean plants, he noticed that they will compete for the single support between them. Once one plant has reached the support, the other immediately senses it and seeks to find an alternative. This is astonishing as it would prove that plants are aware of their surroundings, physical environment and behaviour of other plants. Professor Mancuso believes this is a form of consciousness!
So maybe there is something after all behind the mystical appeal of trees!