Betty W. Phillips, Ph.D., Psychology
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If Trees and Plants Care For Each Other, Why Can't We?




ADVICE LINE is usually thought of as providing advice to people interested in psychological self-help topics.  If you are a GARDENER, FARMER or NATURE LOVER of any kind, this article is also for you.  If you have no interest in the natural world, then I guess you’ll have to go back to your mechanical gadgets and computer world without understanding some very important principles of life.


I am a self professed tree hugger and love my time in the natural world of Forest Garden on my property.  However, like you I’m sure, I do occasionally see a movie and often seek information on my computer.  These topics came together in this article when I learned about the important interactions within the natural world involving both plants and trees. I remember the sacred mother tree in the movie Avatar and the deep loss experienced as the tree was destroyed.  To my joy I’ve realized that there are many wonderful trees and plants on our native terra which can and do interact with us and each other in a caring and mutually beneficial relationship.   We live in a mutually dependent and interactive natural system whether you call it ecosphere, biosphere or Gaia. While we must deal with natural or man-made tragedies and hostilities within our world, most of us realize that we could increase our welfare and happiness with cooperation and caring for each other.  I’m delighted to have discovered some facts about cooperation within the plant world which can provide important lessons for us all.  Please spend a few moments learning about the world of plants and mycorrhizae.


I’d like to start with the idea of the mother tree so wonderfully depicted in Avatar. Foresters including Dr. Suzanne Simard from the University of British Columbia have discovered that we do have mother trees all around us.  We have an important choice: we can understand and nurture them appropriately or deplete our forests by cutting them down for two by fours.  Trees are not stand-alone individuals competing with each other as might be depicted in evolutionary literature. In fact trees of all species interact with each other in a cooperative fashion.  With their extensive root networks connecting all the trees in an area, the trees exchange carbon and nitrogen back and forth between each other according to the needs of the plants. There actually is a mechanism through the roots which the trees use to communicate and send messages between each other. Dying trees move their resources into young trees before the older trees collapse. It is important to allow this transfer before we remove what is left of the dead tree.


Some naturalists and spiritualists tell us they can understand the language and communications between trees. Most of us, however, depend upon scientists and researchers to explain interaction systems within the natural world.  That’s where the concept of mycorrhizae comes in. Many types of fungi coexist with trees and plants in the soil, especially in undisturbed soils. Mycorrhizal fungal filaments in the soil are extensions of root systems composed of specialized fungi which colonize plant roots and extend far into the soil.  More than 90% of plant species in natural areas form a symbiotic relationship with beneficial mycorrhizal fungi.  Mycorrhizal fungi increase surface absorbing area of roots up to 1000 times to increase nutrient uptake and also release enzymes into the soil to dissolve and extract other soil nutrients. One internet article rather dramatically stated that “Fungus is the Internet of the plant world.”


So let’s talk about plants. A recent PBS special “What Plants Talk About” told us that “plants may be more intelligent and more like us than we ever imagined.”  Interestingly, a lot of this research also comes out of Canada, initiated by JC Cahill from the University of Alberta who tells us that “plants evesdrop on each other, talk to their enemies, call in insect allies to fight these enemies, recognize their relatives, and nurture their young.” One experiment showed that plants threatened by aphids but connected by mycorrhizal networks were able to deploy aphid resisting chemicals as well as other chemicals which attract natural predators of the aphids. This success was compared with similar unprotected plants which were devoured by the aphids.  Other experiments have found that plants respond to sound and make their own sounds. Tomatoes and flowering plants release pollen when bees buzz next to them at the correct frequency.  Scientists heard clicking sounds coming from the roots of corn saplings when they listened using powerful loudspeakers.  They learned that the plants would grow toward the source of the clicking when it was emitted by a friendly species. Many other such experiments are being conducted to demonstrate the power and versatility of plant communications.


Gardeners and farmers, pay attention and take action!  Mycorrhizal products are available commercially. I even purchased some at Amazon!  Understanding this science will cause important changes in agricultural practices. Tilling the soil, removing topsoil, compaction or fumigation of soil, monoculture, using genetically modified seeds or toxic chemicals will reduce or eliminate these beneficial soil fungi. It’s also recognized that mycorrhizal populations are slow to recolonize naturally unless mycorrhizal fungi are reintroduced.


What does all this information mean to the rest of us? The assumption that we are fundamentally different and smarter than our natural counterparts is being called into question. The new science  of Biomimicry studies nature’s models and then emulates natural strategies to solve human problems sustainably.  Biomimicry states as one of its goals to “awaken people to the importance of conserving the biodiversity on Earth that has so much yet to teach us.”  But yet there is more to learn here.  I’ve been writing about the value of kindness, empathy and compassion. Surely we must recognize the importance of these values in our human interactions as we learn about their importance in the natural world!  Think about this: if trees and plants care for each other, why can’t we?