Mother Trees

Most of us love to watch birds, especially in springtime when they’re busy nesting and rearing their young. They work so hard for their babies, feeding them, teaching them how to be birds. Observing bird behavior gives us that warm fuzzy feeling…it makes us feel connected to them. In many ways, they’re like us.


But, do plants also care for their young?

We tend to think of plants as lifeforms that don’t really do much, spending their lives “planted” in a “vegetative state”. But scientists are discovering that plants are a lot more complicated than we ever suspected. Even though they have no brain, they can send signals to “communicate” with friends or enemies, they can recognize their own kin, and even wage war.

It’s part of the fascinating field of experimental plant ecology. Last night, I watched the breathtakingly beautiful episode of Nature called “What Plants Talk About”. (if you missed it, you can stream it from PBS here). In it we learn of the work of Professor J.C Cahill of the University of Alberta , who is researching what he calls “plant behavior”. That’s right: behavior. He and other researchers show plants hunting and foraging, tricking enemies, and most amazingly (at least to me), caring for young.

Douglas firs can live a thousand or more years. Most of the really old ones in Washington were cut down, but you can still find Doug firs 700 or 800 hundred years old in Pacific Northwest forests.


Mother Trees

My favorite part of the program was the segment (starting at minute 42) on the work of Professor Suzanne Simard and her research on Mother Trees in the forests of the Pacific Northwest. Her work was published in the journal Nature, and focuses on the relationships of fungi with trees, and trees with each other and the larger forest community. She has found that trees use fungi—hairlike networks in the soil—not only as a way to get nutrients for themselves, but also as a way to shuttle nutrients to each other, particularly to young trees that need it most. She sees this as a way for the oldest, most mature and established lifeforms in the forest to help the younger, most vulnerable trees thrive.

Mothers taking care of their young.

The next time you go to the forest…

…look for the really massive Douglas firs. These are the oldest trees, the ones likely to have more of these complex connections to other trees and plants in the forest. These are the Mother Trees. Imagine…they might be actively “feeding” the younger trees—even trees and plants of different species. The mother trees help the forest community thrive.

It’s amazing, isn’t it? Forests are so much more complicated than we ever knew, and the more we discover, the more amazing the story gets.


(I used this illustration of an ancient Doug fir and seedling for my New Years Post, but it works well here, too!)


And, don’t forget…Mother’s Day is just around the corner!



Watch the full episode of What Plants Talk About (if you don’t have a full hour, Suzanne Simard starts at minute 42 and lasts 15 minutes or so)

Watch Prof. Suzanne Simard discuss her research on Mother Trees

Read an article in Canadian Geographic about Prof. Suzanne Simard’s work

Read more about the What Plants Talk About Episode of Nature


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5 thoughts on “Mother Trees

  1. Pingback: Plant Intelligence | Denise Dahn, artist/writer

  2. Comment…. As a mother and a tree-lover, I found your blog post most interesting. When we are in Mexico we watch the banana trees in the garden ….the mother tree produces a huge bunch of bananas and after Ruben cuts this stalk, he whacks off the entire main tree. He tells me this is done to provide life for the hijos (children). And sure enough, these hijos grow and in a few years they, too, produce bananas. On and on it goes…mother to kids.
    And I won’t forget Mother’s Day….! Loved your blog.

  3. Just wonderful!! I adore your images…. Sometimes, they have a very Arts-and-Crafts (era) feel. I just adore the first work.

    Love this post. I recently read an article about how dying trees also “dump” all their nutrients into the earth, to feed the younger ones, allowing their survival. Just amazing. There’s so much to trees we’re still learning.

    • Thanks! There really is something about trees that captures the imagination. In the video “What Plants Talk About”, Prof. Simard says when she first saw the movie Avatar and saw the portrayal of the Home Tree “feeding” the entire forest community, she thought to herself that the authors must have read her research! I like the intersections of science, art, and imagination!

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