By Laura Gardner, Master Gardener in Training
I first became aware of Suzanne Simard and her forestry research through an online TED talk that I watched as part of an arboriculture course that I had taken. The talk was engaging, enlightening, and inspiring. In it she spoke about the interconnectedness of and the collaborative, communicative, and nurturing nature of different tree species and how networks of mycorrhizal fungi serve as connectors between them. These mycorrhizal fungi, located within a tree’s roots, enable the transfer of nutrients and help them to thrive.
When I saw a year later that she was to publish a book as a follow-up, I jumped at the chance to read it. Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest (Knopf, 2021) not only covers her scientific research but it is also part memoir in that the author weaves her own personal life story within the narrative. We hear how at an early age she had become in tune with and respectful of the forests, influenced by her grandfather, who had practiced logging in a sustainable manner. She would go on to work for logging companies as well as conduct research for the British Columbia Forest Service, trying to determine why certain conifer species grown for harvesting were not thriving and whether eliminating certain tree species would contribute to a more productive end result or be a hindrance.
Simard was skeptical that this long-standing “free to grow” policy was sound practice for the long-term survival of the forests. Her eventual research findings would conflict and effecting change would prove to be difficult and was met with resistance. The view that trees were in strict competition with each other and that best results would be derived though eliminating “unproductive” or “devalued” trees such as Alder and Birch from the plantations could no longer be supported. It would not be easy to convince policy writers to change course and see the more collaborative, symbiotic nature between the different species and the importance of mycorrhizae – that eliminating certain deciduous species actually made the conifers more vulnerable to Armillaria root disease or insect pests such as the Mountain Pine Beetle. Simard would also show that the sharing of resources extended not only between parent and offspring trees, but also between genetically unrelated trees.
Simard demonstrates the disadvantages of developing monoculture environments in the forestry industry but her research should also give much food for thought for those working in urban forestry, landscaping, agriculture, or even at the individual homeowner level. The common
practice of planting the same kinds of species or the isolated planting of an individual species should be reconsidered more widely. These practices lead to less ecological diversity and may reduce the potential for a planted tree’s optimum growth. Perhaps we should consider planting certain species of trees together or in close proximity in order to foster the underground mycorrhizal networks that help strengthen and support them. Perhaps for planting consideration is an alder and a pine or a fir and a birch combination?
Reading this book will change the way you think about trees and you will want to continue to follow Simard’s research. Learn more about the Mother Tree Project.