Companion Planting?

Won’t it feel great to be able to hug freely again? A hug is energizing, literally. Just think of all those happy synapses in your brain, releasing oxytocin. On Mother’s Day, it was difficult to refrain from hugging everyone; I have just had my 2nd vaccine, so there is a light at the end of the tunnel. But of course, this pandemic is not done with us yet. Perhaps I can get some satisfaction by living up to my reputation as a tree-hugger and engage in some cross-species communication. That will be my lunch-hour recreation: I will wrap my arms around a big old mama spruce, feel the chunky bark against my cheek, and imagine my feet connecting with her roots. Is that a ridiculous idea?

During the lead-up to Mother’s Day, I heard a radio interview1 with Suzanne Simard, a faculty member at the University of British Columbia, regarding her new book, Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest.2 Her research has focused on communication between forest trees through webs of underground mycorrhizal fungi. Her findings include recognition of the important role played by large, old trees: “Mother Trees—the majestic hubs at the center of forest communication, protection, and sentience.” 2  A ‘mother tree’ has the most connections via fungi that sheath the roots of trees in a healthy forest. Thus it can sense when a young tree needs assistance, and send carbon molecules. Crazy!

As a nursery owner, I tend to focus on individual species, forgetting that all the plants we grow are destined to be members of a community. Simard’s research challenged prevailing forestry principles and practices which made that mistake as well, for example, planting monocultures of Douglas Fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii). Paper Birches (Betula papyrifera), which would naturally grow up alongside Doug Firs, were considered ‘weed’ trees that shaded and slowed growth of Doug Firs. But Simard observed that Doug Fir monocultures were susceptible to attack by Armilleria root rot fungus. Through experiments using radioactive isotopes to trace the movement of carbon underground between the two species, she showed that the network of mycorrhizal fungi allowed exchanges of chemical signals and nutrients between the two species, resulting in healthier trees.

This puts a whole new spin on the gardening concept of ‘companion planting.’ I am just a couple of chapters into this book, and I am excited to learn more about forests as cooperative societies. Maybe HUMAN societies could learn intra- AND inter-species mutuality from forests. Is that such a ridiculous idea?

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1Fresh Air, Tuesday, May 4, 2021: https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2021/05/04/993430007/trees-talk-to-each-other-mother-tree-ecologist-hears-lessons-for-people-too

2Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest by Suzanne Simard. Ebook. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2021.