• Culture

The secret life of trees

This National Tree Day, we take a closer look at the impact of trees

By Felicity Bonello

How wonderful is nature? If you’ve ever watched Avatar, you’d be familiar with the idea that trees communicate, care for one another, and nurture cooperative communities. But regardless of your movie musings, we all know trees are vital.

As a baseline they’re the largest plants on the planet, they give us oxygen, they store carbon, they steady the soil and provide habitats to the world’s wildlife. But beyond that, scientists have discovered the tonic of the wilderness goes far beyond our standardised comprehension of Mother Nature.

On the eve of National Tree Day – Australia’s largest community tree planting and nature care event – we’re taking a closer look at the physiological and therapeutic value of nature.

Tree Talk

Did you know that carbon compounds made by one tree can end up in neighbouring trees via an underground network of fungi? It’s within this network that trees exchange water and nutrients, and its presumed donor trees purposely and sacrificially send nourishment to others to help them grow and ensure the health of the community. But do trees really talk to one another? Sure, but not in the way we talk.

According to world leading forest ecologist Suzanne Simard, trees are social creatures that communicate with each other in all sorts of supportive ways. They emit hormones and defence signals as a way of information sharing (watch out, I’m being eaten by insects), and other plants can detect these signals and change their composition to suit (thanks for the heads up, I’ve now changed my structure so that particular insect doesn’t want to eat me). Smart.

Trees of Knowledge

To describe trees as intelligent is deemed somewhat controversial because we would use the term to describe highly evolved systems. However, according to Simard forests are not collections of organisms in silos but webs of continuously evolving relationships.

Remarkably, Simard found evidence that trees recognise their own kin and favour them with many of their shared nutrients, especially when the saplings are most vulnerable.

In that case, perhaps it’s more apt that we say trees have some of the characteristics of intelligence, as they have their own behaviours and responses. Either way, their way of operating and coping with ever changing environments is nothing short of remarkable.

Forget Me Not

Then there’s the memory of past events that are stored in the tree rings, and the DNA of seeds. The width and density of a particular tree will, for example, hold memories of previous growing conditions and whether it was a wet or dry season. It’ll also reveal whether there were other trees nearby, and if the tree had been blown over to make way for neighbouring trees to grow. 

Forest Bathing

But trees go beyond the extent of their own ecosystem. Anyone who’s spent any time in nature will tell you how it’s the great reset; that time spent hiking or within a forest equates to unforgettable moments of happiness. In fact, in the 1980s, Japan coined the term shinrin-yoku (“forest bathing” or “taking in the forest atmosphere”). It was a form of eco therapy that encouraged people to reconnect and protect the country’s forests – but it also provided immediate relief for those suffering from tech-boom burnout.

By the 1990s scientists had resolved that time spent immersed in nature was good for us, and today forest bathing has been shown to significantly reduce blood pressure and stress levels, as well as have cardiac and pulmonary benefits. Of course, forest bathing isn’t just for the wilderness lovers among us, it’s about consciously connecting with any natural environment around you. Give it a go!

Supporting Mental Health

It’s no secret that mental health problems including anxiety and depression are high on our national agenda. However, a growing body of research suggests that one way to reduce stress and improve mental wellbeing is to spend more time outdoors, amongst the trees. While there are numerous studies looking into the health benefits of being in nature, one study found that by spending 20-30minutes in nature three times a week, you could reduce levels of cortisol – which is the stress hormone – in the body.

While another found that people in urban areas have a lower risk of developing psychological distress and improved overall health if they have more trees within a walkable distance from their homes. Sure, forest bathing may not be an option for you, but consider a walk outside amongst the trees when you can, as trees seem to have a special impact on people’s mental health.

Actively support trees that support us!

Established in 1996 by Planet Ark, National Tree Day has grown into Australia’s largest community tree planting and nature care event. The program is a call to action for all Australians to get their hands dirty and give back to their community.  

To date, the organisation’s impact has seen 26 million trees planted, five million volunteers help, and over 10millions hours of time donated. School’s Tree Day is this Friday 29th July and National Tree Day is Sunday 31st July. Head to the National Tree Day website and see how you can do something green this Sunday!

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