The Language of Trees

· Articles & Essays · ,

by Peter Wohlleben

According to the dictionary definition, language is what people use when we talk to each other. Looked at this way, we are the only beings who can use language, because the concept is limited to our species. But wouldn’t it be interesting to know whether trees can also talk to each other? But how? They definitely don’t produce sounds, so there’s nothing we can hear. Branches creak as they rub against one another and leaves rustle, but these sounds are caused by the wind and the tree has no control over them. Trees, it turns out, have a completely different way of communicating: they use scent.

Scent as a means of communication? The concept is not totally unfamiliar to us. Why else would we use deodorants and perfumes? And even when we’re not using these products, our own smell says something to other people, both consciously and subconsciously. There are some people who seem to have no smell at all; we are strongly attracted to others because of their aroma. Scientists believe pheromones in sweat are a decisive factor when we choose our partners—in other words, those with whom we wish to procreate. So it seems fair to say that we possess a secret language of scent, and trees have demonstrated that they do as well.

For example, four decades ago, scientists noticed something on the African savannah. The giraffes there were feeding on umbrella thorn acacias, and the trees didn’t like this one bit. It took the acacias mere minutes to start pumping toxic substances into their leaves to rid themselves of the large herbivores. The giraffes got the message and moved on to other trees in the vicinity. But did they move on to trees close by? No, for the time being, they walked right by a few trees and resumed their meal only when they had moved about 100 yards away.

 Photo by Eduardo Merille

Photo by Eduardo Merille

The reason for this behavior is astonishing. The acacia trees that were being eaten gave off a warning gas (specifically, ethylene) that signaled to neighboring trees of the same species that a crisis was at hand. Right away, all the forewarned trees also pumped toxins into their leaves to prepare themselves. The giraffes were wise to this game and therefore moved farther away to a part of the savannah where they could find trees that were oblivious to what was going on. Or else they moved upwind. For the scent messages are carried to nearby trees on the breeze, and if the animals walked upwind, they could find acacias close by that had no idea the giraffes were there.

Similar processes are at work in our forests here at home. Beeches, spruce, and oaks all register pain as soon as some creature starts nibbling on them. When a caterpillar takes a hearty bite out of a leaf, the tissue around the site of the damage changes. In addition, the leaf tissue sends out electrical signals, just as human tissue does when it is hurt. However, the signal is not transmitted in milliseconds, as human signals are; instead, the plant signal travels at the slow speed of a third of an inch per minute. Accordingly, it takes an hour or so before defensive compounds reach the leaves to spoil the pest’s meal. Trees live their lives in the really slow lane, even when they are in danger. But this slow tempo doesn’t mean that a tree is not on top of what is happening in different parts of its structure. If the roots find themselves in trouble, this information is broadcast throughout the tree, which can trigger the leaves to release scent compounds. And not just any old scent compounds, but compounds that are specifically formulated for the task at hand.

This ability to produce different compounds is another feature that helps trees fend off attack for a while. When it comes to some species of insects, trees can accurately identify which bad guys they are up against. The saliva of each species is different, and trees can match the saliva to the insect. Indeed, the match can be so precise that trees can release pheromones that summon specific beneficial predators. The beneficial predators help trees by eagerly devouring the insects that are bothering them. For example, elms and pines call on small parasitic wasps that lay their eggs inside leaf-eating caterpillars. As the wasp larvae develop, they devour the larger caterpillars bit by bit from the inside out. Not a nice way to die. The result, however, is that the trees are saved from bothersome pests and can keep growing with no further damage.

The fact trees can recognize saliva is, incidentally, evidence for yet another skill they must have. For if they can identify saliva, they must also have a sense of taste.

A drawback of scent compounds is that they disperse quickly in the air. Often they can be detected only within a range of about too yards. Quick dispersal, however, also has advantages. As the transmission of signals inside the tree is very slow, a tree can cover long distances much more quickly through the air if it wants to warn distant parts of its own structure that danger lurks. A specialized distress call is not always necessary when a tree needs to mount a defense against insects. The animal world simply registers the tree’s basic chemical alarm call. It then knows some kind of attack is taking place and predatory species should mobilize. Whoever is hungry for the kinds of critters that attack trees just can’t stay away.

Trees can also mount their own defense. Oaks, for example, carry bitter, toxic tannins in their bark and leaves. These either kill chewing insects outright or at least affect the leaves’ taste to such an extent that instead of being deliciously crunchy, they become biliously bitter. Willows produce the defensive compound salicylic acid, which works in much the same way. But not on us. Salicylic acid is a precursor of aspirin, and tea made from willow bark can relieve headaches and bring down fevers. Such defense mechanisms, of course, take time. Therefore, a combined approach is crucially important for arboreal early-warning systems.

Trees don’t rely exclusively on dispersal in the air, for if they did, some neighbors would not get wind of the danger. Dr. Suzanne Simard of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver has discovered that they also warn each other using chemical signals sent through the fungal networks around their root tips, which operate no matter what the weather. Surprisingly, news bulletins are sent via the roots not only by means of chemical compounds but also by means of electrical impulses that travel at the speed of a third of an inch per second. In comparison with our bodies, it is, admittedly, extremely slow. However, there are species in the animal kingdom, such as jellyfish and worms, whose nervous systems conduct impulses at a similar speed. Once the latest news has been broadcast, all oaks in the area promptly pump tannins through their veins.

 Photo by John Fowler

Photo by John Fowler

Tree roots extend a long way, more than twice the spread of the crown. So the root systems of neighboring trees inevitably intersect and grow into one another—though there are always some exceptions. Even in a forest, there are loners, would-be hermits who want little to do with others. Can such antisocial trees block alarm calls simply by not participating? Luckily, they can’t. For usually there are fungi present that act as intermediaries to guarantee quick dissemination of news. These fungi operate like fiber-optic Internet cables. Their thin filaments penetrate the ground, weaving through it in almost unbelievable density. One teaspoon of forest soil contains many miles of these “hyphae.” Over centuries, a single fungus can cover many square miles and network an entire forest. The fungal connections transmit signals from one tree to the next, helping the trees exchange news about insects, drought, and other dangers. Science has adopted a term first coined by the journal Nature for Dr. Simard’s discovery of the “wood wide web” pervading our forests. What and how much information is exchanged are subjects we have only just begun to research. For instance, Simard discovered that different tree species are in contact with one another, even when they regard each other as competitors. And the fungi are pursuing their own agendas and appear to be very much in favor of conciliation and equitable distribution of information and resources.

If trees are weakened, it could be that they lose their conversational skills along with their ability to defend themselves. Otherwise, it’s difficult to explain why insect pests specifically seek out trees whose health is already compromised. It’s conceivable that to do this, insects listen to trees’ urgent chemical warnings and then test trees that don’t pass the message on by taking a bite out of their leaves or bark. A tree’s silence could be because of a serious illness or, perhaps, the loss of its fungal network, which would leave the tree completely cut off from the latest news. The tree no longer registers approaching disaster, and the doors are open for the caterpillar and beetle buffet. The loners I just mentioned are similarly susceptible—they might look healthy, but they have no idea what is going on around them.

In the symbiotic community of the forest, not only trees but also shrubs and grasses—and possibly all plant species—exchange information this way. However, when we step into farm fields, the vegetation becomes very quiet. Thanks to selective breeding, our cultivated plants have, for the most part, lost their ability to communicate above or below ground. Isolated by their silence, they are easy prey for insect pests.

That is one reason why modern agriculture uses so many pesticides. Perhaps farmers can learn from the forests and breed a little more wildness back into their grain and potatoes so that they’ll be more talkative in the future.

Communication between trees and insects doesn’t have to be all about defense and illness. Thanks to your sense of smell, you’ve probably picked up on many feel-good messages exchanged between these distinctly different life-forms. I am referring to the pleasantly perfumed invitations sent out by tree blossoms. Blossoms do not release scent at random or to please us. Fruit trees, willows, and chestnuts use their olfactory missives to draw attention to themselves and invite passing bees to sate themselves. Sweet nectar, a sugar-rich liquid, is the reward the insects get in exchange for the incidental dusting they receive while they visit. The form and color of blossoms are signals, as well. They act somewhat like a billboard that stands out against the general green of the tree canopy and points the way to a snack.

So trees communicate by means of olfactory, visual, and electrical signals. (The electrical signals travel via a form of nerve cell at the tips of the roots.) What about sounds? Let’s get back to hearing and speech. When I said at the beginning of this chapter that trees are definitely silent, the latest scientific research casts doubt even on this statement. Along with colleagues from Bristol and Florence, Dr. Monica Gagliano from the University of Western Australia has, quite literally, had her ear to the ground. It’s not practical to study trees in the laboratory; therefore, researchers substitute grain seedlings because they are easier to handle. They started listening, and it didn’t take them long to discover that their measuring apparatus was registering roots crackling quietly at a frequency of 220 hertz. Crackling roots? That doesn’t necessarily mean anything. After all, even dead wood crackles when it’s burned in a stove. But the noises discovered in the laboratory caused the researchers to sit up and pay attention. For the roots of seedlings not directly involved in the experiment reacted. Whenever the seedlings’ roots were exposed to a crackling at 220 hertz, they oriented their tips in that direction. That means the grasses were registering this frequency, so it makes sense to say they “heard” it.

 Photo by Michael Foley

Photo by Michael Foley

Plants communicating by means of sound waves? That makes me curious to know more, because people also communicate using sound waves. Might this be a key to getting to know trees better? To say nothing of what it would mean if we could hear whether all was well with beeches, oaks, and pines, or whether something was up. Unfortunately, we are not that far advanced, and research in this field is just beginning. But if you hear a light crackling the next time you take a walk in the forest, perhaps it won’t be just the wind…

Peter Wohlleben is a forester and writer on subjects related to woodlands and nature protection. He currently lives in Germany.

From The Hidden Life of Trees, translated by Jane Billinghurst, Copyright ©2016 by Jane Billinghurst, Reprinted by permission of Greyston Books, Ltd.

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