Outdoor Encounters: May 5, 2022

By Nathan Bolls on May 5, 2022

Among college students who elect to major in some aspect of the biological world, those who choose one of the fields within plant biology constitute a much smaller bunch than those who elect to study some topic within the field of animal biology. There are several reasons for this imbalance.

We, being animals, are much more at home with other animals. After all, certain animals can give us love and affection, generate that cuddly feeling, and also evoke in us strong feelings of fear or of awe. We ponder how deep they think and feel, the depth and complexity of their memories, and of their abilities to plan. In contrast, how much do you really know about an oak tree, a clump of big bluestem prairie grass, or a stand of moss at the base a forest tree?

Another is the silent frustration at not being able to clearly visualize the various parts of plants. For example, they have areas where growth occurs, but these areas are difficult to study without serious disrupting—or killing—the plant. Plants tend to stay in one place and seemingly, don’t do much. It is easy to get the idea that plants are not very complicated, and thus, boring, but are we too sure of our own revolution?

My goal here is to drain away part of that boggy swamp of anti-botanical bias. I want to go beyond the many widely known ways that plants make life better and easier for us, beyond the fact that the products of the photosynthetic chemical stepway of plants are essential for human existence.

For starters, plants do have specific tissues that do things, with much effort being given to growth of roots, trunks, limbs, and flowers. And they have a sophisticated endocrine system, with, again, most endocrine functions bring directed at simulating growth of roots, trunks, limbs, and blossoms. Growth implies cell divisions, and specific layers are quite active with this necessary process during the growing season. They have a circulatory system of sorts that transports water, minerals, and synthesized organic molecules up and/or down within the plant as needs and season dictate. The typical plant’s chemical synthesis ability is so powerful that they can synthesize every chemical they need, from a list of 12 or so “essential nutrients,” that plants must get from their environment. Our list of essential nutrients is between 45-50.

Plants neither migrate nor hibernate. They stand firm and take on whatever Father Sky throws at them. And sometimes—as do trees and shrubs in our area—they have to endure very harsh conditions. Recent data suggest that, to survive really cold temperatures, the living cells in trunks and limbs move certain electrolytes around to greatly lesson the chance that cytoplasm will crystallize, the trigger that sets off freezing and cell organelle damage within living cells.

Although we have come to expect this each spring without much sense of miracle or awe, plants respond to both external and internal signals and awaken their biochemical and physiological machinery. Bud formation occurs, as does both twig and flower formation. Then comes seed, fruit, and nut formation. And, in the process, but most likely unconsciously, plants gamble: they thrust their tender shoots, leaves, and flowers upward, not knowing what sort of air from our testy months of March, April, and May will caress them.

And, responding to both internal and external stimuli, the approach of cold weather stimulates plants to begin the many processes that result in a plant calmed down and buttoned up again the cold. Fall leaf colors give us a profound show of plant beauty, a gala of color that rivals the blossoms of before.  

Also, consider the data reported by long-time German forester, Peter Wohlleben, author of The Hidden Life of Trees. He gives examples of how trees have certain sensory capabilities. And he speaks of several sharing mechanisms. I’ll mention just a couple of them. Using fungal filaments that permeate healthy soils, roots  of trees connect with one another via these filamentous strands, making it possible for trees to share food and minerals if necessary. Other researchers, some in the USA, have gathered similar data. Another example comes from the reaction of African acacia trees to leaf browsing by giraffes. It seems that a tree being browsed releases chemicals into the air. And trees downwind are signaled to release toxic and distasteful chemicals into their leaves. The data suggest that these toxic chemicals cause a decrease in browsing on the downwind trees.

Wohlleben’s examples add up to the fact that trees (at least), in basic and essential ways, know how to give back to the soil and to each other. It seems that we should look to trees for a lesson we humans must learn: reciprocity—if we are to keep this beautiful Earth habitable for the human species. His data also suggest that, in at least some species, it takes a grove to raise truly healthy trees. Yet another old idea that we have been too busy to really pick up on.  

It also follows that we have got be very careful, especially in a judgmental context, when using such terms as “higher” or “lower” and “modern” versus “primitive” in describing living organisms. It seems that trees know how go do certain societally beneficial things we do not, or that we can’t bothered to do. Maybe we really should hug more trees!