In her new book, Finding the Mother Tree, University of British Columbia professor of forest ecology, Dr Suzanna Simard, shares decades of fascinating research. She says an underground network of mycorrhizal fungi connects the trees in a forest, allowing them to speak to one another, to share important information as well as nutrients. The mother trees are the oldest matriarchs of the forest, and they use this Internet-like fungi network, nicknamed the Wood Wide Web, to care for younger trees.
“Older trees are able to discern which seedlings are their own kin,” Dr Simard reads from her book. “The old trees nurture the young ones and provide them food and water, just as we do with our own children. It is enough to make one pause, take a deep breath and contemplate the social nature of the forest and how this is critical for evolution. The fungal network appears to wire the trees for fitness. And more, these old trees are mothering their children.”
This underground fungi network also plays a big role in the death process. Dr Simard says it can take decades for a mother tree to die, and during that time she passes on her wisdom.
“This transmission of carbon, but also information, to neighboring trees is an important process in that dying process because it transmits information from the past to the future. These old trees will transmit information about their health and defense systems and even their genetic makeup to their kin or their offspring or other neighbors. It’s a long process; it’s a vital process, actually. We often ignore that process by harvesting dying trees and using them for wood when in fact those trees are playing an important roll nurturing the next generation along.”
Dr. Simard started forming these hypotheses decades ago, as a 20-year-old woman working for the forest service in British Columbia. When a forest was clear cut, they would plant new trees with the intention of cutting down that crop when they reached maturity. But Suzanne observed a low survival rate of saplings and tried to understand why they weren’t thriving. The long belief was that trees competed with one another for survival, especially different kinds of trees, so they shunned diversity and only planted one kind of tree.
“And I was coming along with this new research, saying: actually they collaborate, they work together to create a healthy ecosystem. This went against the grain of this industry that was supported by a lot of money. So there was a lot of backlash, there was a lot of pushback. Ignoring of the work still goes on. We still haven’t changed our forestry practices. We still clear cut our mother trees, we still get rid of the native plants, we still have not changed.”
She eventually entered academia, where she could focus on scientific research to back up her claims of the fungal network and the importance of diversity in nature. While the forest service might not take her seriously, Dr. Simard’s TED talks on the topic have been viewed more than 10 million times. And anthropomorphizing the trees into the roles of mothers and children is intended to get people more invested in their future.
“I wanted the research to get into people’s hearts so that they would fight for these forests. If they understand forests as connected societies, very much like our own human societies, they’ll care more about this and fight for these last, remnant forests because they’ll know better about how essential they are for us as well.”