Many people go into nature to find relaxation and tranquility in these turbulent times. It is not without reason that nature is even prescribed as a medicine in Scotland. Someone who has experienced this herself and spends a lot of time in nature is Suzanne Simard, a professor of forest ecology. She spent her childhood in the Canadian forests. She spent her days building fortresses, picking berries, searching for mushrooms and sometimes eating a handful of soil. Out of her love for the forest, she has researched the social network of trees. And she discovered a whole underground network of hyphae
Simard found out that the trees in the forest are connected by means of hyphae. These hyphae connect not only trees of the same species, but also of other species. These connections are very important to the trees as these underground channels can transmit carbon dioxide, water, nutrients, alarms and hormones from tree to tree. This is a completely different picture than before. Trees were seen as individuals who had to fight for a place, enough nutrients and water. But Simard now shows us that the forest is not an individualistic society at all, but a collective whole.
The importance of this underground network becomes clear from the result that the seedlings that had the opportunity to be part of this fungal network were 26% more likely to survive. To give an example of the contribution of this network; if the needles are removed from a Douglas fir seedling, this seedling has a high chance of not surviving. The seedling then sends out stress signals and also transfers a large part of the carbon dioxide stored in the plant to another tree. This tree in turn produces more protective enzymes to protect itself. Who would have thought that trees could communicate with each other in such detail and warn each other.
What has been established by Simard as well as other researchers is that the amounts of carbon dioxide passed on to seedlings are enough to actually have a positive impact. Also in the scenario when an older tree is damaged or does not receive light, the network of fungi ensures that this tree can survive. The trees can therefore feed, inform and restore each other, that is certain. The question that researchers have not yet been able to answer is why trees exchange these substances. The trees do not seem to be about competition and selection to determine who is the strongest and best tree, but they support each other.
You may now look at the trees very differently on your next walk in the forest, at least I will. Together we are strong, it reminds me of that. While walking in the forest, you are surrounded by a community of trees, rather than individuals. And the mushrooms you see are the fruiting bodies of the underground fungal networks. It is all connected. A viewing tip if you want to learn more about this subject is Suzanne Simard’s TEDTalk.