SPOTLIGHT STORY

8 Things You Might Not Know About Trees

Celebrate the Jewish holiday of Tu B'Shevat – the New Year of the Trees – with these weird and wonderful tree facts

Trees have had a huge impact on human culture: from Buddha’s fig tree, to the Tree of Knowledge, to Newton’s apple tree, they’ve shaped how we see ourselves and the world around us. Trees are so familiar you might think you know everything there is to know about these leafy giants, but here are 8 facts that might surprise you.

Sugar maples (Acer saccharum) in fall at The Morton Arboretum, 2014 (From the collection of The Morton Arboretum)

Trees talk to each other, remember things and make friends

In a new book by forester Peter Wohlleben, The Hidden Life of Trees, he explains that trees have social networks that scientists call the 'Wood Wide Web'. Yes, really.

"They can count, learn and remember; nurse sick neighbors; warn each other of danger by sending electrical signals across a fungal network known as the 'Wood Wide Web'", he explains, "and, for reasons unknown, they keep the ancient stumps of long-felled companions alive for centuries by feeding them a sugar solution through their roots." Trees even help out others of different species.

Woods 06-Polar, 2006, Doyang Zu (From the collection of the Korean Art Museum Association)

Researchers at The Morton Arboretum are learning about root structures by developing 3D models to study these intricate systems:

Living fossils

Unlike other tree types, like oaks and maples that include hundreds of species, ginkgos (Ginkgo biloba) are the only surviving species in their family.

Ginkgo is a long-living tree, and the species itself is a "living fossil" — it first evolved around the same time as the dinosaurs, over 200 million years ago.

Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba), 2011, Ed Hedborn (From the collection of The Morton Arboretum)

Record breakers

Trees can be really big….

Andrew P. Hill next to giant redwood tree, 1901, Andrew P. Hill (From the collection of History San José)

And trees can be really tall…

Road Near the "Three Sisters Trees" in Sequoia National Park, California, 1922 (From the collection of The Henry Ford)

And they can be really old…

The Beech Tree, about 1855 - 1857, Gustave Le Gray (From the collection of The J. Paul Getty Museum)

In fact, they’re the largest, oldest and tallest organisms on Earth. Want to know what the biggest tree ever has to do with Abe Lincoln, and a tragic dance party? Watch here:

Healing trees

Trees have been used for medicinal purposes for 1000s of years. For example, the ‘Artemisia arborescens’ takes it’s name from the Greek word "artemes", meaning ‘healthy’, representing the plant’s powerful anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties. Traditionally, Italian women would prepare crucifixes made of Artemisia branches to put under the pillows of women in labor.

Artemisia arborescens (From the collection of Valley of the Temples)

Quassia wood contains the most bitter-tasting flavor found in nature, and even insects won't go near it. So why would anyone want to drink an extract made from Quassia bark? It contains chemicals that soothe the stomach and increase appetite. Today, Quassia is used for organic insecticides and has also been found effective in treatments for leukemia and cancerous tumors. Quassia is native to the West Indies, where islanders once carved cups from the wood and filled them with water to create their medicinal brew.

In fact, you’ve probably even drunk it yourself in a cocktail or two – it's one of the sources for the mixer "bitters".

Quassia Cup Quassia Cup (From the collection of The Field Museum)

Knock on wood

Lots of magical and mythological creatures have been said to reside in trees. Take the Ancient Greek dryads, who were magical nymphs that lived in oak trees. Indeed, the superstition to ‘knock on wood’ comes from the old English pagan practice of knocking on wood to summon the protection of the spirits that lived within.

Two Addorsed Tree Dryads, 49-25 BCE (From the collection of Los Angeles County Museum of Art)

Tree homes

While you may be more familiar with tiny, shoddily built tree houses made for children in your garden, people have actually lived in large and complex tree houses for centuries. Most trace tree houses to the South Pacific, where they offered secure homes above floods and wild animals, as well as offering good visibility of the surrounding area. Take this Koiari Village, in New Guinea, photographed by John William Lindt in 1885.

Tree House, Koiari Village, New Guinea, 1885, John William Lindt (From the collection of Museum Victoria)

One small step for seed, one giant leap for tree-kind

On January 31, 1971, Apollo 14 left Earth on the third NASA trip to the moon, carrying astronauts Alan Shepard, Stuart Roosa and Edgar Mitchell.

Roosa was a former U.S. Forest Service worker, and took hundreds of tree seeds with him into space.

Apollo 14- Launch, 1971, Ralph Morse (From the LIFE Photo Collection)

While Alan Shepard and Edgar Mitchell walked on the moon and even played golf on the lunar surface, Roosa orbited above in a command module and germinated his tiny seeds. On landing back on Earth, these seedlings were planted across the United States, known as the "Moon Trees".

Mission: Apollo-Saturn 14: Alan B. Shepard, Jr. plants American flag on the moon, 1971, Edgar D. Mitchell (From the collection of The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston)

A struggle for survival

Trees make our lives better in ways we may not realize: they clean air, store carbon, and provide food, timber, fuel, and medicine. Scientists call these benefits ‘ecosystem services’. If trees were to disappear, humans would have to pay billions of dollars for these ecosystem services.

And, of course, we rely on them for the very air we breath. But despite their critical importance to humans and ecosystems, at least 10 percent of the world’s roughly 100,000 tree species are threatened with extinction.

Korean collection at The Morton Arboretum, 2014 (From the collection of The Morton Arboretum)
Words by Léonie Shinn-Morris
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