red mushrooms in foreground trees and forest in the background
[ Nature Lovers ][ Reforestation ]

Introducing “Mama Trees” and Their Freaking Awesome Forests

Photo by Lisette Verwoerd on Unsplash 
Originally posted 5/21/20

High Speed Fungus and “Mother” Hub Trees

I have a mother, you have a mother, even the family pet has a mother, but did you know that trees have a mother? 

Well they do.

They are crucial in establishing health and even protection in their home environments: the forests. 

I first learned about hub or “mother” trees,  about two years ago while watching an episode of the reboot of The Magic School Bus on Netflix.

In the episode the students were turned into trees, bees, and fungi in order to experience the communication experience of trees. 

I thought the episode entertaining but  “well, duh, of course plants communicate. Why wouldn’t they? They’re alive so of course they must have a system to communicate.” 

It’s common sense logic right?

Not really, high speed fungus and hub trees is still considered a breakthrough.  

So this past Mother’s Day I decided to do a little research on what exactly a Mother Tree is and who came up with the concept in the first place. 

May I Introduce Dr. Suzanne Simard 

Susanne Simard is a professor of forestry ecology at the University of British Columbia, and a three time Ted Talk presenter. She is the scientist credited with founding the idea of Mother Trees and establishing how trees use the mycorrhizal network to communicate. 

Wait! Backup, the what network? 

It’s okay, mycorrhiza was a new word to me too and it literally means ‘fungus root’. 

The mycorrhiza network, is basically the world wide web. 

 Let me explain. No there is too much, let me sum up. 

In an illustrated video, which you can watch here, I learned the following.

The root system of trees are infested with fungal roots, fungus which exhibits itself on the surface as mushrooms. 

Side note: the mushroom is the fungus reproductive organ. That was an interesting factoid that Dr. Simard threw out in one of her Ted Talks

Back to the story.

The fungal root system, or mycorrhiza, spreads and connects a cooperative network of trees.

Not just trees of the same family, it creates an interdependent community.

Dr. Simard discovered for instance that a Douglas Fir and a Paper Birch helped each other out, sending carbon to each other at different times of the year depending on need. 

For example, in winter when the fir is still growing but the birch is leafless. 

Complete reciprocity, mutual respect and nurture. Something we could all use more of I’m certain. 

The mycorrhizal network isn’t just a way to communicate, it’s not just a phone system for trees to chat or gossip.

Though who knows, maybe they do that too. 

It’s used primarily, as far as Dr. Simard and colleagues can tell to:

  1. share information in the form of nutrients.
  2. And to warn of danger such as an infection or infestation, which can then help the trees send nutrients to combat the dangers.

Kind of like herd immunity. Cool huh? 

Okay Wait! Trees can warn each other of danger, and help heal each other?  Mind blown

But then again, can’t other living organisms do the same? So why not trees? 

Makes perfect sense. 

So How do Mother Trees play a part? 

As mentioned above another name for Mother Trees are hub trees.

When Dr. Simard and her colleagues mapped out a portion of the British Columbia forests. What they noticed was like any other communication network there are nodes and links. The busiest nodes are the information hubs or mother trees. 

Mother trees are the protectors of the forest, sending nutrients to their cooperative trees as well as to their saplings.

In fact, like many mothers, they favor their own seedlings over those whose DNA is not of their lineage. The mother trees still send nutrients to the unrelated seedlings, but not as much as they send to their own. Also, they can manipulate their root system to make way for the growth of their seedlings. 

Sounds pretty intelligent if you ask me.

Furthermore, Dr. Simards team discovered that a dying tree can  send its knowledge to it’s heirs giving them greater resilience in the future.  

Seeing the World Anew 

Learning about the ways trees communicate is awe inspiring. How they exist in a symbiotic relationship with the fungus in the soil, how they care for and nurture each other, really makes me view forests differently. 

It further explains why in reforestation efforts a wide variety of plants and trees are planted in a given ecosystem.

It’s not enough to just plant one type of tree and call it a forest. Trees have unique and diverse needs depending on their species and their habitat. They need their symbiotic and cooperative partners to thrive. 

This could also have practical application when selecting the trees and plants to place in our own gardens. In Dr. Simards early experiments between a birch, a fir, and a cedar she learned that cedar is in a world of it’s own and doesn’t communicate with birch or fir.

But I’m sure that cedar has it’s proper cooperative partners. It just takes a little research, and thanks to the internet, we have a world of knowledge at our fingertips.

As she said in her Ted Talk, it changes how we look at trees, form competitors to cooperators.  

And maybe it’s something we can bring into our lives. 

How do we communicate?

  • Are we competitors for resources, or do we exist in a cooperative network?
  • Are we a part of nature or separate? 

Those are questions that each of us must consider and answer for ourselves.

I believe we are a part of nature, and that we have the ability to learn from nature and create a more harmonious world. 

Maybe in some small way, we can all learn to be more like trees. 

About Author

Jenn Gaskin

After more than a decade in education I decided to turn my copious skills to writing. I have been freelance writing for Dancing Tree Gifts (formerly Sonora Kay Creations) since 2019. I wear many hats with DTG primarily copy editor, author, and web design.