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  • Writer's pictureBecca

The Nature of Plants

It's glaringly obvious that humans thrive more when we make connections with other humans. Relationships (romantic and nonromantic) increase our immune system and allow us to share the load of survival to make living easier. Many species of animals and insects do the same. With this being the case, how can we not think that certain plants do the same as well?

sunlight shimmers through the trees of a forest
A forest is filled with many varieties of plants and fungi

Are plants sentient? Do they form societal or familial bonds in the form of relationships? What is the nature of plants?

A little over 20 years ago, an ecologist named Suzanne Simard discovered that trees communicate their needs to each other and send each other needed nutrients under the ground. There are several ways that this happens.

Mycorrhizal Fungi is well-known to most long-time gardeners. It has a symbiotic relationship with plants, allowing them to better absorb nutrients in the soil and increases the plant's ability to handle various stressors such as disease and weather changes. The mycorrhizal network is one of the ways plants are able to communicate with others around it, like sending distress signals about drought and disease.The plants around it can then alter their behavior. In some cases, when one tree detects deer saliva it can send certain toxins to change the taste of the buds and coax the deer to leave. Signals will sometimes be sent to neighboring trees to do the same.

"Trees are linked to neighboring trees by an underground network of fungi that resembles the neural networks in the brain, she explains. In one study, Simard watched as a Douglas fir that had been injured by insects appeared to send chemical warning signals to a ponderosa pine growing nearby. The pine tree then produced defense enzymes to protect against the insect."

mushrooms growing among some moss
Mycelium plays an important role in the survival of plants and trees

Don't get too caught up though, we are still a long way from confirming this as a definitive event. "When scientists exposed the fir to insects, the pine also started pumping out defense chemicals. The effect disappeared, however, when the firs and pines were connected by both roots and fungi, as happens in the wild. “The main message is that this hasn’t been tested in a forest,” Karst says. “When you see those pictures of ancient forests, big trees ... passing signals to each other—it just hasn’t been tested.”"

Another way trees may communicate is directly through the roots. However; In most forests it isn't the trees that try to boost the health of each other (Some believed exceptions include familial trees, meaning the mother tree will sometimes send nutrients to help the seedlings she produced). Albino plants, that cannot produce chlorophyll for themselves, often latch on to other trees and become parasitic. Generally speaking, it is simply the fungi and the plants that must speak to each other so as to not compete for resources.

It is also well-known to experienced gardeners that certain plants cannot be grown near each other. This is for various reasons, generally they compete for the exact same nutrients. There are plants that do very well next to certain others as they have balancing needs. One may put things like nitrogen back into the soil while the other needs the nitrogen. Utilizing this symbiotic relationship is called companion planting. We'll talk more about those at a later date.

So what is the answer to the question? Do trees/plants have a familial or societal bond to increase survival?

Right now, it's all up in the air. There's too many variables in the wild that cannot be controlled or sometimes even accounted for. Fungi networks are also very delicate and are frequently destroyed by disturbance. It may be decades before we know for certain.

What are your thoughts?

PS: don't stress if you see mushrooms growing in your containers inside or out. It's a good sign!

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