Talking Trees—Secrets of Plant Communication

by Tom Hennigan on April 9, 2017; last featured April 27, 2018
Featured in Answers Magazine
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Forests are nurseries of health and well-being. New discoveries are showing that this doesn’t happen by accident. The trees are working together.

Come with me on an imaginary journey through a woodland wonderland. As we wind down the shaded path, damp moss on the forest floor brushes our bare feet. The scent of white cedar tickles our noses, while filtered morning light enchants our eyes. A gray squirrel chatters overhead in the ancient oaks, and nearby a white-breasted nuthatch chitters to its mate.

What a special place to retreat from our hectic, dysfunctional world and experience peace and tranquility! But there’s more to the forest than meets our eyes (and noses, ears, and feet).

The psalmist declared, “Let the field be joyful, and all that is in it. Then all the trees of the woods will rejoice before the Lord” (Psalm 96:12). It’s poetry, certainly, emphasizing that God’s creation yearns for the Lord to return and restore peace on earth.

Stresses constantly threaten to destroy the forest’s surface harmony, and yet modern scientific research is revealing how marvelously the Creator has equipped His woodlands to respond to these stresses, keeping alive these reminders of harmony that once existed and will be restored someday through Christ.

Researchers are discovering that trees form communities that “talk” to each other, sharing their needs and providing mutual assistance. Yes, you heard me correctly. It’s mindboggling, even for someone like me who has spent his life studying nature’s wonders (forest ecology in particular).

Now, it’s important to remember that forests aren’t human or alive in any sense like animals (they lack the “breath” of life, or nephesh, according to God’s Word). Unfortunately, some current researchers blur the line, imbuing plants with animal or human attributes, such as feelings and consciousness, which they don’t have. The science itself is fascinating, without any need to make trees sound human-like.

When the Bible proclaims that “the trees of the woods” give glory to God, this metaphor may be a reality in unexpected ways.

Trees can’t run from danger or visit their neighbors to ask for a cup of sugar like we can. To sidestep peril and meet their changing needs in a fallen world, cursed because of man’s rebellion against God, their Creator imbued trees with unique abilities. They can communicate with other trees and with other creatures, seeking help. Why would this be necessary, if the Lord made plants to provide food and shelter for animals and people (see Genesis 1:29–30)? Well, for one thing, they need to survive—no matter what abuses they suffer at the hands of heedless clearcutters or unrestrained insects in our fallen world—to meet the needs of future generations.

One of their defenses against being overeaten is producing chemicals that make them taste bad. At the same time, other chemicals warn nearby trees that a swarm of voracious beetles or other animals have invaded. These chemicals are specifically tailored for this purpose.

In addition to chemical warnings, some oak and beech leaves and spruce needles will produce electrical signals when an insect predator eats them. Electrical impulses generate messages to the rest of the tree so that, within an hour, the tree will hopefully taste so bad that the insects flee.

Experiments in the African savannah suggest that when a giraffe arrives and starts ingesting acacia leaves, plants will soon be inedible but will also warn nearby trees. Leaves send out the warning gas ethylene, and other trees in the vicinity detect the scent and start producing their own defense chemicals before the giraffe arrives. How do plants “smell” the gas and then mount their own defense before the giraffe begins eating them? More research is needed.

Acacia Leaves

To avoid being overeaten when giraffes begin munching on them, acacia trees can change the flavor of their leaves and also warn other trees to do the same.

As hungry insects salivate on elms and pines, the trees can chemically analyze the insects’ saliva, reproduce it in mass quantities, and broadcast the chemical to the forest community. This cry for help alerts predators who like to eat the insects. They promptly come flying to the location, eliminating the insects that are attacking the tree.

It’s easy to imagine why God originally designed systems to produce chemicals with many different smells—to bless other creatures in the forest. Many woodland scents are still just as pleasant to animals as they are to us. In fact, the trees that produce flowers and fruit purposefully send out sweet-scented messages in a wide variety of colors, patterns, and perfumes to invite animals to come, explore, and partake.

Communication is happening below our feet as it is above. If we could carefully remove the loam at the base of a forest tree, we’d see a root system that spreads out twice as far as the canopy above our heads. This root system reaches depths of 1–5 feet (0.3–1.5 m), depending on the location. More astonishingly, roots may connect directly with the roots of other trees. Trees can distinguish members of their own kind and establish connections with them.

When one tree is sick, nearby trees may share nutrients.

This reality contradicts the old view that woodland trees simply competed in a life-and-death struggle for limited light and nutrients. Though plants do compete in forests, current research suggests that more often, trees may be cooperating and assisting each other. When one tree is sick, nearby trees may share nutrients through their roots to help it get well again. If a lodgepole pine sapling springs up in the shade of a thick forest, older trees somehow sense that it doesn’t get enough sunlight to make food for itself, so they may share their bounty. They even change their root structure to open space for saplings.

How do plants talk in the soil? They may have several options. For example, researchers have found evidence that plants are communicating by sound. Though this sounds crazy, vibrations emanating from seedlings in laboratory settings have been detected by special instruments and measured at 220 hertz. In experiments, roots direct other roots to grow toward this low frequency. Much more research must be done, but these experiments suggest one intriguing possibility for the way plants communicate.

Trees also communicate with chemical messages, but they aren’t just talking to each other. They talk to their other soil neighbors, too. Microorganisms, such as bacteria and fungi, gather water and nutrients that the trees need. So roots produce nutritious substances, such as sugars and proteins, to attract these organisms. One researcher described this chemical advertisement as trees producing “cakes” and “cookies” to attract microbes to come and enjoy.

Special fungi recognize these chemical messages and not only partake, but also interact with roots to form partnerships. Fungi, for example, will inform the tree when they need to enter a root, and the tree will respond by softening a place in its root wall where the fungus can enter.

Fungal microbes receive all the food (sugar) they need to build their bodies, and in return they help trees obtain water and minerals, protect them from drought, absorb toxic heavy metals, and help undernourished and young trees. Trees couldn’t build their tall trunks without a steady supply of minerals from microbes that mine the soil and transport them to the tree.

This underground network of root/fungus communication acts in many ways like an underground internet. These special fungi called mycorrhizae (“fungus root”) spread a tangled highway of long microscopic tubes, called fungal hyphae, through the soil from tree root to tree root. Literally miles of tiny tubes are found within a single cubic foot of soil between two tree roots.

Trees communicate so intensely via these networks that it has been called the “underground internet.”

Trees communicate so intensely via these networks that it has been called the “underground internet” and the “wood wide web.” Electrical impulses pass through nerve-like cells from root tip to root tip, and these signals may be broadcasting news about drought conditions, predator attack, and heavy metal contamination.

Working together by means of complex communication tools such as sound, chemicals, and electricity, every member in the forest benefits. These complex relationships help maintain a healthy forest system, as the trees moderate temperature extremes, store groundwater and carbon more efficiently, produce plenty of oxygen, and provide a healthy habitat for other forest denizens.

I have not met anyone who wasn’t amazed by these findings. No matter what their religious or political view, people around the world are recognizing forests as places that promote emotional, spiritual, and physical health. Trees filter dust, pollen, pollutants, bacteria, and viruses from the air. Taking a deep breath in a virgin forest is literally a healthy experience. Research is confirming that, when stressed and driven people visit the forest, they find not only rest but lower blood pressure and an increased sense of peace.

There is no question that these phenomena have been overstated at times and greatly anthropomorphized (described in human-like terms). So how should followers of Christ make sense of these findings?

When we study the forest, we find mutually beneficial relationships, lavish provision, and steady communication. Are these not attributes of the Creator? Are they not evidence that God wants to display some of these wonderful attributes, even in nonthinking organisms?

Romans 1:20 proclaims, “Since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse.” The Bible highlights many of God’s attributes, including the fact that He is relational (Genesis 2; 1 Corinthians 12) and is a communicator (John 1:1; Hebrews 1). In His creation we can see visible and finite hints of His invisible and infinite characteristics, if we have eyes to see.

All forest ecologists see the amazing relationships and interconnections within the forest. As a result, some have called the forest-and-earth biosphere a living organism. But we know from Scripture that a loving Creator is behind them. Christ the Word has filled His creation with organisms that communicate with chemicals, sounds, and electrical impulses. The recipient is designed to listen and respond in kind. What an amazing reminder that God desires to communicate with us, and He expects us to respond to His Word and help one another, too.

Yet we live in a broken world full of sickness and unhealthy relationships. Even the forest suffers from genetic defects, blight, and wanton destruction. The potential harmony of the forest reminds us about what once was, before man’s rebellion against the Creator brought corruption into the world. But the Creator, Jesus Christ the Son of God, came to earth as a man to restore all things, and He will complete this restoration when He comes again (John 1:1–14; Revelation 21:1–7).

Spending time in the forest is a wonderful way to meditate on God and get our life priorities back in line. Scripture proclaims, “Seek the Lord while He may be found. . . . For you shall go out with joy, and be led out with peace; the mountains and the hills shall break forth into singing before you, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands” (Isaiah 55:6, 12).

Source: The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate by Peter Wohlleben. (This book often overstates the human-like qualities of trees, so use biblical discernment when reading it.)

Tom Hennigan is associate professor of biology at Truett-McConnell University, where he teaches organism biology and ecology. He is coauthor of the newest edition of the Wonders of Creation series, The Ecology Book.

Answers Magazine

May–June 2017

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Originally published as “Look Who’s Talking.”


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