Editorial: A world of magic is buried beneath that Christmas tree

Thursday, December 21, 2017

What, we wonder, are the trees saying? They talk, you know, though none we’ve met have yet said “I am Groot.” Trees are aware of their surroundings and connected to their plant neighbors through an underground network of fungi. They communicate through the air as well. A maple under attack by insects, for example, warns its neighbors, who begin producing bug-repelling chemicals.

Which raises the question, have the trees taken note of the loss of millions of their coniferous bretheren, sacrificed to become the center of attention in many a festive living room? We don’t know, but we doubt it. Christmas trees are cultivated and rows of trees growing like corn are a farm not a forest.

Vermont naturalist Bernd Heinrich, author of books that include The Trees in My Forest, calls plantations of even-age trees dead zones, because they lack the diversity of plants and animals found in a forest. So the trees on tree farms may not talk, but their wild kin do. Some can also, Canadian ecologist Suzanne Simard discovered, recognize their seedling relatives and share resources in the form of nutrients like carbon, nitrogen, phosphorous and sugars by passing them from tree to tree through the threadlike subterranean web of fungi.

Twenty years ago, Simard used radioisotopes to track the movement of sugars through the fungal network connecting two trees, a Douglas fir and a paper birch, growing near each other in a forest in British Columbia. When she shaded one tree, which stopped photosynthesis, sugars flowed through the network from the sunlit tree to the one in the shade. How’s that for a Christmas message of sharing?

Much of the year you can’t see the tree for the leaves. Winter is the time to study their shape. A tree that doesn’t have to compete with its neighbors for light grows long branches and a spreading crown. A tree racing its rivals to capture sunlight puts its energy into growing tall and straight.

This is the season when wreaths and table decorations feature “princess pines,” tiny, evergreen lookalikes. They are not trees but club moss, plants whose prehistoric ancestors were 100 feet tall and in time, became coal. The “pines” grow on long runners two or three inches below ground and today seldom top six inches. They are native to New Hampshire and common, but be judicious when gathering them and to preserve the plant, snip, don’t pull.

As children who, “down they forgot as up they grew” know, trees are magical. How magical, humans are only coming to understand. In the Academy Award-winning movie Avatar the willow-like Tree of Souls used its root network to connect the entire biosphere of the planet Pandora. A little far-fetched, perhaps, but Simard discovered that forests have, “mother trees,” who by dint of age, resilience and the breadth of their below-ground collaboration with mushrooms, are more broadly connected than any others in their patch of forest. It’s these trees that should be spared when timber is cut so they can help repopulate the forest.

Simard also found that trees, when they reach the end of their lifespan, act like humans with an estate plan. They give their stored nutrient resources to their kin and neighbors and later, once they’ve fallen, give back even more.

So this holiday season, enjoy the beauty of Christmas trees festooned with shiny orbs, tinsel and angels, and give thanks for the trees that provide humans with food, shelter, warmth, beauty, mystery and wonder.