The research into the co-operative nature of trees is in its infancy.
Human beings are competitive creatures. The popularity of sport attests to that. Competition is also a driver of our social interactions. We compete for mates, for jobs and in many other ways.
But if human beings are intrinsically competitive, we are, at the same time, manifestly co-operative. Fans of team sports know that even very talented teams can fall short if the players don’t perform within a co-operative framework. In our personal lives co-operation builds vitally important social bonds.
Other animals, of course, compete and co-operate too. And plants? They compete intensely for sunlight, water and nutrients. But do they co-operate as well?
An emphatic yes, as revealed by research by Dr. Suzanne Simard in British Columbia. Simard discovered that “mother” trees shuttled nutrients to their offspring via underground fungal mycorrhizal networks. This was exciting enough. But then Simard discovered something truly extraordinary.
Two very different species of trees, Douglas fir and white birch, were helping each other survive! The fir trees would supply carbon to the deciduous birch trees in the winter when the birch had no leaves to conduct photosynthesis. In other seasons the two species would swap roles. Birch would feed carbon to the Douglas firs through their interconnected mycorrhizal webs.
The research into the co-operative nature of trees is in its infancy. I’d love science to explore the possibility that two of our local tree species, beech and hemlock, might also be co-operating through fungal networks.
Beech and hemlock often grow together on moist woodland sites, making a lovely combination. Neither species survives well beyond the forest. Remove one from its peers and it will languish and usually die prematurely.
Something about the woodland environment is necessary for their well-being. It’s purely speculation on my part, but maybe that well-being depends on the metaphorical embrace of their underground fungal networks.