Desperately Seeking A Community Of Trees

By Teo Spengler | April 29, 2021
Image by zrfphoto
by Teo Spengler
April 29, 2021

Hard times come in all sizes, and the COVID-19 pandemic hurt almost all of us suddenly, fiercely and deeply. We lost friends and loved ones, jobs and community. I am sure that the isolation that the virus created partly explains my personal choice of the tree I would choose to be, could I choose to be a tree: the coast redwood (Sequoia sempervirens). Because, in all honesty, I am not picking a specimen tree but a community of trees.

Sequoia Sempervirens

I live on the California coast, home to 99 percent of the remaining coast redwoods in the world. Forests of these mighty trees once covered a huge swathe of the Pacific Northwest, but they were felled for their lumber, used to build cities like San Francisco. Many of the old growth trees that remain are protected in state and national parks.

One reason I love coast redwoods is because they are trees of extremes. They are the tallest trees in the world, shooting up to 300 feet tall (90 m.) and even taller. Their trunks can expand to a diameter of 10 to 20 feet (3 to 6 m.). They grow very fast for evergreens, and have been known to live long lives, into the thousands of years.

Community of Trees

All this is impressive, and there is no doubt that walking in a redwood stand creates much the same feeling of quiet inner peace as being in a cathedral. But there is yet another reason I select coast redwood as the tree I would like to become. It has to do with the Sequoia semperviens community of trees.

In one sense, every forest is a community, sharing a physical location as well as sunshine, rain and soil nutrients. But coast redwoods often grow in pure stands, surrounded by others of the same species. This creates a tighter community of trees and facilitates communication between them.

Trees Helping Trees

I have loved coast redwoods from the minute I entered my first redwood forest, but it was only when I started training to be a docent at the San Francisco Botanical Garden that I learned this fascinating fact: redwoods communicate with each other and even help one another.

It’s all in the roots. When a tree is 300 feet (90 m.) and the roots are in the top 10 feet (3 m.) or soil, you have to wonder how they stay up in the wind. Here’s the answer: The trees’ root systems are connected. They “hold hands” under the soil, stabilizing each other and themselves. 

But that’s not all. The roots form an underground fungal network – termed mycorrhizal networks – that allow the trees to “talk” to one another. If one redwood needs a particular nutrient, this information is shared through microscopic fungal filaments, and other trees can “send” the needy tree what it requires to survive.  That definitely sounds like a community I would like to be part of, especially in these isolating times.

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