More information continues to surface that trees may be far more connected than we thought. Forest ecologist Suzanne Simard of The University of British Colombia gave a TED talk in June 2016, during which she detailed research that shows mother trees recognize their kin. At a time when an increasing number of people are disconnected from the natural world, Simard hoped to persuade the audience to think differently about forests.
In the talk Simard said, “…we set about an experiment, and we grew mother trees with kin and stranger’s seedlings. And it turns out they do recognize their own kin. Mother trees colonize their kin with bigger mycorrhizal networks. They send them more carbon below ground. They even reduce their own root competition to make elbow room for their kids. When mother trees are injured or dying, they also send messages of wisdom on to the next generation of seedlings…so trees talk.”
Trees send each other carbon through mycelium, or fungal threads, and it looks like the sending process isn’t simply random. According to Simard’s research, mother trees prioritize their offspring when it comes to providing them with key nutrients and other resources. Trees can send not only carbon through mycorrhizal networks, but also nitrogen, water, defense signals, phosphorous, and allele chemicals.
Simard says mycorrhizal networks have “nodes and links.” Fungi act as links, and trees as the nodes. The busiest nodes she calls mother trees. Mother trees can sometimes be connected to hundreds of trees, and the carbon they pass to those trees is said to increase seedling survival by four times.
Her findings are incredibly relevant for conservation. If too many mother trees are cut down, “the whole system collapses.” Simard thinks we’d be more careful about cutting down trees if we were aware of the deep connections between their “families”. You can watch her whole TED talk here.