Can Trees Talk?

Trees, the towering giants of the Earth’s woodlands, may not be as stiff as you think. Growth is just about the only movement that comes to mind when thinking of trees. They grow up, reaching for the sun, but otherwise, common knowledge tells us that they don’t do much.

These conceptions may not be entirely true. It seems that trees deserve a tad bit more credit. In fact, the German forester Peter Wohlleben believes that forests are superorganisms of unique individuals. Recent studies have confirmed his observations: trees are far more alert, social, sophisticated, and perhaps even intelligent than we thought.

Trees used to be thought of as disconnected, stationary outcasts who competed for water and sunlight. However, the scientific community has observed that trees of the same species are communal and will even form alliances with other trees. They interact with each other and, according to Smithsonian magazine, “maintain [relationships] by communication and collective intelligence similar to an insect colony.” Underground, trees share water and nutrients through fungal networks. These communications get incredibly complex: they send distress signals about drought, disease, and insect attacks. Miraculously, other trees will actually tweak their behavior when these messages are received.

These networks are called mycorrhizal networks. At the root tips there are fine, hairline fungal filaments that link separate trees together like neurons. These fungi reap rewards for passing on these woodland messages, taking about 30 percent of the sugar that trees photosynthesize from sunlight.

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Once, Wohlleben stumbled upon a huge beech stump in a German forest. Though the tree fell 400 or 500 years ago, Wohlleben found green, bright chlorophyll just underneath the stump’s dirt-covered surface. He came to an astonishing conclusion. The surrounding beech trees were providing life support, pumping sugar and nutrients to the felled tree.

If anything, these findings should be a testament to the beauty, complexity, and power of the plants that provide us with the oxygen needed to survive on this Earth.