Do Trees Communicate?

Some of you will have seen the movie Avatar or read The Lorax to your children. Most of you will be familiar with J. R. R. Tolkein’s Ents. All three (and more) have to do with the communication of trees. Folktales and legends have long held that trees do speak to us. But even if they can’t speak, at least not using words, science does indicate that trees do communicate.

Back in 1979, chemist and Zoologist Davey Rhoades took two groups of willow trees — one infested with caterpillars and the other not — and took leaves from both groups of trees. He then fed the leaves to caterpillars in the labratory. He found that the caterpillars grew quite slowly, no matter whose leaves they were fed, because both the infected trees and the non-infected trees had flooded their leaves with an unsavory chemical that discouraged the caterpillar,s growth. Rhoades concluded that the attacked trees had slipped the uninfected control trees a danger signal.

Since then, other scientists have achieved similar results with different approaches. In 1982, Ian Baldwin and Jack Schultz potted 45 young poplar trees. 30 of them were placed together in an isolated chamber and the other 15 trees were placed in another isolated chamber as the control group. They then mechanically ripped the leaves of 15 trees in the first chamber, leaving the other half of the trees in that same chamber untouched. Then 3 days later they tested the leaves for specific chemicals that insects avoid. They found that in the first chamber, there was a significant increase of these chemicals in the leaves of both the ripped and the nonripped trees, while in the control group there was no such change. They concluded that somehow, trees can communicate with each other, and their conclusions drew other researchers into the field.

Other experiments have found that trees communicate not only for defense but also to time their blooming. Insects won’t be able to eat too many flowers if they all bloom at the same time. I find this all very interesting. It also reminds me of Isaiah 55:12, a poetic prophecy that reads, “Ye shall go out with joy, and be led forth with peace; the mountains and the hills shall break forth before you into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.”

And then along came Suzanne Simard, a forest ecologist at the University of British Columbia. She and her colleagues made the major discovery that trees really do interact with each other through an underground web of fungi that connects the trees and other plants of an ecosystem. They discovered webs of bright white and yellow fungal webs in the forest floor that have a symbiotic relationship with the trees to actually move carbon, water and nutrients between trees, depending on their needs.

I really love Suzanne Simard’s findings! Her findings mean that a whole forest may be linked together. If one tree has access to water, another to nutrients, and a third to sunlight, this means that the trees have the means to share with one another.

We in the Body of Christ are like the trees of the forest. We may not each have identical gifts, but when we work together all needed gifts are present in our Christian community. We can warn each other about danger and share what is essential to life with each other. Like the trees in the forest, Christians in the church both need each other and support each other. Isn’t it breathtaking the way God has made everything interconnected?

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