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‘Mother Tree’ ecologist Suzanne Simard shares secrets of tree communication: pictures



Suzanne Simard is a professor of forest ecology at the University of British Columbia. Her medical journey inspired her to research how yew trees communicate chemically with neighboring trees to protect each other.

Brendan George Ko / Penguin Random House


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Suzanne Simard is a professor of forest ecology at the University of British Columbia. Her medical journey inspired her to research how yew trees communicate chemically with neighboring trees to protect each other.

Brendan George Ko / Penguin Random House

Trees are “social beings” that communicate in a collaborative way, which is also a lesson for humans, says ecologist Suzanne Simard.

Simard grew up in Canadian forests as a descendant of a logger before becoming a forestry ecologist. She is currently a professor of forest ecology at the University of British Columbia.

Trees are linked to neighboring trees by an underground fungal network. That is similar to the neural network in the brain, she explains. In one study, Simard watched fir, Douglas injured by the bug, appear to deliver chemicals. Warning signal To nearby Ponderosa pine trees The pine then produces a protective enzyme to protect against insects.

“This is a breakthrough,” Simard said, the tree was sharing. “Information important to the health of the whole forest”

In addition to alarming each other, Simard said trees were known to share nutrients during critical times to keep each other in good health. She said the trees in the forest were often linked through the older trees she called the “mother” or “the hub”.

“In connection with the trees of all ages [the mother trees] “The seedlings are linked to a network of old trees and benefit from the enormous absorption capacity. And the older trees transmit carbon and nutrients and water to little seedlings during these crucial moments of life, helping them to survive. ”

The tree study received a new echo for Simard when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. During her treatment, she learned that one of the chemotherapy drugs she had just got was derived from a substance that some plants created to protect each other. She describes her research on cooperation and wild life and shares her personal story in a new memoir. Searching for the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest.

Interview Highlights

Searching for the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest By Suzanne Simard

Penguin Random House


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Penguin Random House


Searching for the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest By Suzanne Simard

Penguin Random House

Worked for a logging company in British Columbia in their 20s.

It was the late 1970s when I began; They are clear And just started planting trees Of course, this was completely different from what I saw my grandfather do to my father and uncle. They took out some weird trees here, but this was a wholesale to get both big and small trees, and that was my first job in the forestry industry, which to me was pretty shocking. But it’s also very exciting because it’s so dangerous. And I was one of the first women to enter the industry.

Being a young forestry and realizing that fungi is the key to forest health.

In the forest floor … there are all kinds of insects. But there are still many fungi And the fungus is colorful There are both yellow and purple and white and … they grow through the forest floor to the point that it almost looks like gauze. So I found this yellow fungus. And when I pulled the poorly done seedlings – they were yellow and dying – I realized that their roots were black and straight … So I wonder where have they gone? Are they missing from this fungus? Is this fungus … a pathogen or a helper fungus?

And I finally learned that these are a special helper fungi called mycorrhiza, which means that the fungi are the kind that grow in the soil and take nutrients and water and bring it back to the soil. Seedlings … I can finally conclude that these small, poorly done seedlings are gone from mycorrhiza.

About the important relationship between trees and fungi

Keep in mind that all trees and plants except a few plant families have strong ties to these fungi. That means they need it in order to survive and grow and produce cones and stay fit – in other words, to pass their genes to the next generation. And fungi depend on the plant or tree … because they don’t have their own leaves. [for photosynthesis]So they get into this symbiosis by living together in roots and exchanging these essential resources: plant carbohydrates for fungal nutrients in a two-way exchange, which is very tight, almost like a market swap. If you give me five dollars, I will refund you five. There is very tight control between the two partners in symbiosis, but yes, every tree and plant in our forests around the world depends on this relationship.

About how trees can help each other by sharing nutrients.

[At the time] Birch is considered a weed. There is a big project to spray and weed these trees to get rid of them, as defenders see birch trees compete with Douglas fir, who compete for the light in particular. I noticed in these plantations that when they got rid of the birch, when they sprayed or cut them, there was a disease in the forest that had just spread like a fire. It’s called Armillaria root disease. I really think we’re doing something wrong here. So I want to know if birch helps protect the pine from this disease, and when we cut it, it makes it worse.

I learned about these mycorrhiza fungi and how they can actually protect trees from disease. And I’ve also heard of David Reed’s work in the UK, where he has shown that in the lab, trees can be linked by mycorrhiza and transmits carbon between them. So I tested this between a birch and fir in a sick garden.

I planted birch and pine and cedar together in triplets … and I investigated how those carbon molecules go back and forth between birch and fir, and they don’t end up there. Cedar Because of the cedar They Produces other types of mycorrhiza that are not related to birch or fir, therefore [the cedar] Not in a network with birch and fir, and this isotope is hardly picked up.

I know birch and fir are sharing a lot of carbon under the ground, which contradicts the prevailing wisdom that they only compete for light, and the more Douglas fir birch shading, the more carbon is sent to Douglas fir. Only more Therefore, there is a net transfer from birch to fir, thus reducing the shading effect.

In this way, ecosystems remain balanced – birch and fir can coexist because of this collaborative behavior, which refutes some of the competition that is going on.

On how her own breast cancer diagnosis has taken her research into shape.

Of course it had a huge influence on me and my life changed. But it has changed my research as well. That was when I started working on remembering relatives, seeing if these old trees, especially when they were dying, could recognize and help their relatives. And I really have a graduate to ask those questions. Did you know that if the trees were dying they would send more? [nutrients and other signals] With their relatives? And we found that they did

Then I started my research – one of the main chemotherapy drugs I gave me was paclitaxel. [also called Taxol]Paclitaxel is a protective agent, a defensive chemical produced by Pacific yew or yew around the world. It’s essential for my recovery – this compound that the tree produces to protect itself from disease.

So I think you know what? I want to know more about it. I started my studies with graduate student Eva and she was looking for a neighborhood of yew – whether they were related to old cedar and maple trees, and their neighbors would influence talent. To produce high quality Taxol for added protection.

We recently found out that these trees are connected by a network of mycorrhiza, which is a way for them to communicate this information. Yes, we are working on that. I hope it helps us in conserving one of these trees for their medicinal properties because they are very creative in what they do. They have developed these things, what we call medicine. But they are there to protect yourself from illness as well. Cancer treatment was what drove me to do this study. And I’m really excited to see what we’ve learned.

Why is it important to let an old tree go through a long process of death itself?

[Trees] Old. They finally decrease. And dying is a long and time consuming process. It took decades for a tree to die. During the dying, many things happened. And one thing I have studied is where is its energy – where did the carbon stored in their tissues – where did it go? So we labeled some trees with carbon dioxide with C13, a stable isotope, and we watched that we actually killed them. We strain them by pulling out the needles and attacking them with cutworms, for example. And then we look at what happens to their carbon.

And we found that about 40% of the carbon is transmitted through networks to nearby trees. The rest of the carbon is distributed through natural degradation processes … but some are sent directly to neighbors. And in this way, these old trees have a very direct effect on the regenerative capacity of new forests in the future.

This is a completely different way of understanding how old trees contribute to the next generation – that they have the next generation of agency. And our approach to salvage the logging to get rid of dying or newly dying or wildfire trees – if we cut them right away, we were short-circuited that natural process.

Our study suggests that it will have an impact on the upcoming regeneration. They will not be ready for life to come in the future. So I tried to tell people: Hold on to salvage this record until the trees have a chance to pass this energy and information to the upcoming new seedlings.

Sam Briger and Thea Chaloner produced and edited this interview for broadcast.Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper, and Deborah Franklin adapted to the web.


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