New book says ‘mother trees’ take care of forest relatives using underground fungal network


In his new book, Find the mother treeUniversity of British Columbia professor of forest ecology, Dr. Suzanna Simard, shares decades of fascinating research. She says an underground network of mycorrhizal fungi connects trees in a forest, allowing them to talk to each other, share important information as well as nutrients. Mother trees are the oldest matriarchs in the forest, and they use this internet-like fungus network, dubbed the Wood Wide Web, to care for young trees.

“Older trees are able to discern which seedlings are their own parents,” Dr. Simard reads in his book. “The old trees feed the young and provide them with food and water, just as we do with our own children. Just take a break, take a deep breath, and contemplate the social nature of the forest and its importance to evolution. The fungal network appears to wire the trees for fitness. And besides, these old trees mother their children.

This underground network of fungi also plays an important role in the dying process. Dr Simard says it can take decades for a mother tree to die, and during that time she is passing on her wisdom.

“This transmission of carbon, but also of information, to neighboring trees is an important process in this process of death because it transmits information from the past to the future. These old trees will pass information about their health and defense systems and even their genetic makeup to their parents or offspring or other neighbors. It’s a long process; it’s a vital process, in fact. We often ignore this process by harvesting dying trees and using them for wood when in fact these trees play an important role in educating the next generation.

Ms. Simard began making these assumptions decades ago, when she was a 20-year-old woman working for the British Columbia Forest Service. When a forest was clearcut, they planted new trees with the intention of cutting that crop when they reached maturity. But Suzanne observed a low survival rate of the saplings and tried to figure out why they weren’t thriving. The long-held belief was that trees competed with each other for survival, especially different types of trees, so they avoided diversity and only planted one type of tree.

“And I would come up with this new research, saying, they’re actually collaborating, they’re working together to create a healthy ecosystem. It went against this industry which was backed by a lot of money. So there was a lot of backlash, there was a lot of backlash. Ignorance of work continues. We still haven’t changed our forestry practices. We cleared our mother trees again, we still get rid of native plants, we still haven’t changed.

She eventually entered academia, where she was able to focus on scientific research to support her claims about the fungal network and the importance of diversity in nature. While the Forest Service may not take it seriously, Dr. Simard’s TED talks on the subject have been viewed over 10 million times. And anthropomorphizing trees into the roles of mothers and children is about getting people to invest more in their future.

“I wanted the research to penetrate the hearts of people to fight for these forests. If they see forests as connected societies, just like our own human societies, they will care more and fight for those last remaining forests, because they will know better how essential they are to us as well.

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