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The Wood Wide Web: reinventing how we see and understand trees

Posted: Thursday 19th January 2017 by Volunteering

Beech trees at West Hanger

What we thought we knew about trees is changing. You wouldn't believe what is going on beneath the surface on a peaceful walk through a woodland.

Walking through a woodland or forest, they can be hives of activity or peaceful retreats. However, have you ever considered there could be more going on beneath the surface? As the trees are swaying in the wind, seemingly single entities, would you have ever imagined they’re communicating with each other constantly, aiding each other and protecting their own?

Environmentalists, ecologists, conservationists and a continuing list of ‘ists’ associated with the environmental sector have long thought that there are intricate and intimate relationships between animals, species and habitats. However, one of the most incredible of these relationships has to be that which exists between trees and fungi, more specifically mycorrhiza which literally means ‘fungus-root’. ‘Fungus-root’ refers to the symbiotic relationship that exists between fungi and most if not all woodland trees and other green plants.

The two key parts of this relationship are perfectly developed for their partnership: the vegetative part of the fungus called the mycelium and the microscopic hairs on the extremities of the roots of the green plant. The mycelium is made up of fine underground threads which forms a dense ‘net’ around the tree roots, which creates an ‘exchange highway’ that is mutually beneficial to both the fungi and the plants. There are a number of benefits to plants reported, including an increase in establishment success, survivorship in seedlings and higher growth rate. Fungi benefit also; water, carbon, nitrogen as well as other vital nutrients are transferred along these ‘highways’ from the plants, benefitting the fungi.

Like a family, tree saplings grow up with their ‘parents’ as part of a community and there is a growing body of evidence which suggests that those trees which are part of a community grow faster, are healthier and live for longer. This is in comparison to lone trees which do not have the luxury and benefits of growing within a community. Those trees which begin life in a disadvantageous position such as in areas with nutrient poor soils, or under heavy shading make up for this with supplements from the community – passed through the Wood Wide Web. However, lone trees have to make it on their own and are often less healthy and do not live as long.

This is a relatively new discovery and there is a wealth of information, research and theory already and that is only set to grow. There is so much on this topic that it is difficult to summarise it in a blog. If you find this topic as interesting as me you might be interested in reading the ‘The Hidden Life of Trees’ by Peter Wohlleben which goes into much greater detail. Enjoy!

Katy Fielding

Volunteer Coordinator

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