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The Most Fascinating Part of any Tree

In wood chemistry classes in college, one thing I learned was that trees are fascinating. We spent a bit of time on the root system of trees, but far more on what was above ground. After all, that's what paper makers are most interested in. Since college days, I've learned a lot more about trees. And much of what's fascinating about trees begins, actually, with what's underground.

Not what you were expecting to read, I know. After all, what could possibly be interesting about the roots of trees?

Well, it's easy to take what we don't see (and can't make profit from) for granted. But what researchers have discovered is nothing short of mind-blowing.

For example, researchers in Europe found that trees can actually learn from what they experience. (Yes, you read that correctly!) And where does this experience get stored? Scientists believe it's stored in the root network of trees.

The root network is the ideal place to store experiences, since the root network carries all the information. The root network is in charge of all chemical activity of the tree and regulates all chemical messengers. Also, because the root network carries all the information, a tree can be cut down and can regrown over and over again... with the same tree DNA. And the root network does more.

The root tips work like signaling pathways, together with mycorrhizal fungal systems which intertwine between and among the roots, and become like fiber optic cables in the forest for communication. And what goes down these root-tip signaling pathways?

At the University of Bonn, Germany, Researchers measured electrical signals in tree roots, finding these signals changed the behavior of the trees. For example, as roots were feeling their way forward, if they detected toxic or water-laden soil, the roots would, because of those electrical signals, grow in a different direction.

Even stranger is that when trees grow together they share water and nutrients evenly among them all. This strange behavior has been noticed time and time again, and can only be done through the root system and mycorrhizal fungal network.

Students at the Institute for Environmental Research at RWTH Aachen, Germany noticed this behavior in the undisturbed beech forests: the beech trees all received the same light, but soil conditions varied greatly, even within a few yards. The trees produced sugars equally from photosynthesis at the leaves, and these sugars were shared to all trees evenly, so whichever tree had extra gave some, and whichever needed some, received.

Just imagine. All this is going on under our feet when we're standing by a tree. None of this understanding of trees was known when I went to college. It's astonishing what researchers have learned about trees since.

Trees are beautiful. They make our homes, parks, and wildernesses beautiful, as well as provide the necessary income for us all. And the trees regrow, over and over.

Yes. Trees truly are amazing.


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