Peter Wohlleben, The hidden life of trees. What they feel, how they communicate: Discoveries from a Secret World

You don’t have to be a tree-hugger to wonder about the experience of trees, especially not when you are Peter Wohlleben. In his bestselling work The Hidden Life of Trees, the precursor to The Secret Lives of Animals (reviewed in the March edition of THT), the botanist and forester delves into the life of trees and reveals how intelligent and social trees are. For one, trees know how to count. Whereas many leafed plants in late winter and early spring get tricked by nature after experiencing a couple of warm days, and start to make new leafs, trees on the other hand will cautiously wait for 23 consecutive days of warm weather before starting to produce leaves.

Wohlleben also discovered a major difference between trees in city parks and those that grow in secluded forests. A California redwood on the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada can grow up to 300 feet high, whereas as the same species planted in Europe in a park or garden will rarely get taller than 150 feet. The author explains that trees excel in isolated environments with no or minimal human interaction (hence: no hugging!) and where the soil is soft and fluffy, which allows their roots to expand. In parks and other cityscapes, where people are walking, the top layer gets hard like concrete and it becomes more difficult for the roots to find nutrients.

But there is an amazing factor why trees do not fare well in parks. Unlike animals, trees in their natural habitat live next to their parents their whole life! In fact, trees thrive in close-knit communities. In parks and gardens, they are all alone and have no support from their community. In the forest, taller trees will collect more sunlight and rain (through the widespread of branches and leaves and extensive root system) and provide other trees and plants in their direct surroundings that are in need. Large trees have greater capacity to store water and nutrients, which they will later share with the tree community in times of draught. Even when a neighboring tree has died – or has been chopped down – surrounding trees will think it is sick and continue to supply it with nutrients. In that regard, we should be more like trees.

Edition 10 April, by Benjamin B. Roberts