Tree Talks

Written By: Mollie Ripple

It’s common to see trees and think they are independent lifeforms, connected only by proximity in a park or forest. But this may not actually be true! Some scientists believe that trees are collective, interdependent beings and that they can communicate with fellow trees for resource sharing and protection. 

Far below the plentiful green leaves, stretching branches and tall trunks emerging from the forest floor, there may exist an expansive network of fungus working tirelessly to keep the trees nourished and safe. More technically known as a mycorrhizal network, this fungus could allow trees to share water and nutrients and to communicate with one another. What would a tree need to communicate to its neighbor, you might wonder? Many things! 

  • If one tree is being attacked by an insect, like oakworms on an oak tree or leaf-eating caterpillars on an elm, it would begin to fill its leaves with chemicals as a protectant. Then, it could alert surrounding trees to do the same, so it’s more difficult for insects to harm it. 
  • Trees could share their absorbed water with others during a drought, so as to maintain the health of the forest as a whole. 
  • Sap could be sent to the damaged areas of a tree when it is cut down due to its antiseptic, healing properties. 
  • When a new seedling emerges, it could connect to the larger network of established trees headed by a “mother” tree, and they could send it water and nutrients to spur its growth. 

Fungus is believed to be helpful, or even necessary, to the survival of forests, but what might be fueling the fungus? Well, trees utilize carbon dioxide and water to create sugars through photosynthesis. The fungus in these mycorrhizal networks uses a percentage of this sugar as energy to seek out the nutrients that it can disperse to the trees. Therefore, the fungus and trees would have a mutualistic relationship, both benefiting and surviving because of the other. 

The work of each tree and the underground network of fungus below it go to show that, much like humans, communication, support and shared resources from the community may assist trees to survive and thrive. The River Legacy Nature Center is one such resource bringing together STEM education, walkable trails, and native animals for the benefit of the members of Arlington and surrounding communities!