They stand tall, nurturing their offspring to enhance their chances of growing steadily and sturdily. They support their neighbors, transmitting messages across vast and intricate networks to ensure the community’s safety and well-being. They have withstood the cycles of many years, including challenging conditions, yet persist with grace and beauty. They are mothers – mother trees.
Much attention has focused lately on the networked nature of forests. Trees exist not simply as individuals but within a highly collaborative, interconnected system, communicating through elaborate circuitry of fungi and root tips. "Forests", notes forester Peter Wohlleben in The Hidden Life of Trees, are superorganisms with interconnections much like ant colonies" Key to this interconnectedness are "Mother Trees", a notion pioneered by Scientist Suzanne Simardin (who appears as a fictionalized character in Richard Powers' The Overstory, the subject of the prior blog). The dominant trees in forests, Mother Trees function as central nodes for extensive underground networks of roots and mycorrhizal fungi. They nurture young trees by spreading fungi to them and conveying needed nutrients.
Mother Trees also restrain the unfettered growth of young trees so that they can grow in ways that make them sturdier and more resilient.Writes Wohlleben:
" Young trees are so keen on growing quickly that it would be no problem a all for them to grow about 18 inches taller per season. Unfortunately for them, their own mothers do not approve of rapid growth. They shade their offspring with their enormous crowns, and the crowns of all the mature trees close up to form a thick canopy over the forest floor. This canopy lets only 3 percent of available sunlight reach the ground and, therefore, their children's leaves. Three percent--that's practically nothing. With that amount of sunlight, a tree can photosynthesize just enough to keep its own body from dying. There's nothing left to fuel a decent drive upward or even a thicker trunk .... [S]low growth when the tree is young is a prerequisite if a tree is to live to a ripe old age. ... Thanks to slow growth, their inner woody cells are tiny and contain almost no air. That makes the tree flexible and resistant to breaking in storms."
Slow growth also makes trees resistant to disease-bearing fungi,, which has difficulty penetrated the their tougher trunks. In the meanwhile, over a period that could last 200 years (the equivalent of 40 human years), the Mother Tree passes along sugar and other nutrients to the offspring. "You might even say they are nursing their babies," notes Wohlleben.
Thanks to the attentiveness of Mother Trees, young trees can grow up strong and resilient, and forests can thrive. The same can be said for the roles of mothers (and fathers) within human families and communities. On this Mother’s Day, consider the Mother Trees around you.
New York is the epicenter of the book publishing industry. So, in exploring NYC nature connections it is apt to note the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for fiction awarded to Richard Powers' The Overstory, a novel in which trees shape the lives of nine characters and are so vividly evoked as to be characters too. In addition, Victoria Johnson's American Eden was a finalist for the Pulitzer for history. American Eden is a riveting biography of David Hosack, visionary physician and botanist during the early Republic who created the New York's first botanical garden (more about this terrific book in a later blog).
Nature certainly received much attention from this year's Pulitzer Prize Board.
The Pulitzer Prize Board describes The Overstory as "An ingeniously structured narrative that branches and canopies like the trees at the core of the story whose wonder and connectivity echo those of the humans living amongst them."....a sweeping, impassioned work of activism and resistance that is also a stunning evocation of—and paean to—the natural world. From the roots to the crown and back to the seeds, The Overstory unfolds in concentric rings of interlocking fables that range from antebellum New York to the late twentieth-century Timber Wars of the Pacific Northwest and beyond. There is a world alongside ours—vast, slow, interconnected, resourceful, magnificently inventive, and almost invisible to us. This is the story of a handful of people who learn how to see that world and who are drawn up into its unfolding catastrophe."
With stirring, incisive descriptions, Powers awakens deep, limbic understanding of humans' biological and emotional connection to the natural world and the primacy of trees. “This is not our world with trees in it" he writes. "It's a world of trees, where humans have just arrived.” And what lessons there are to be learned from trees. Here's a passage I particularly like, one that portrays survival of the fittest not as fierce drama played out through competition among individuals but rather as a result of successfully networked, interrelated, and cooperative communities:
"The things she catches Doug-firs doing, over the course of these years, fill her with joy. When the lateral roots of two Douglas-firs run into each other underground, they fuse. Through those self-grafted knots, the two trees join their vascular systems together and become one. Networked together underground by countless thousands of mile of living fungal threads, her trees feed and heal each other, keep their young and sick alive, pool their resources and metabolites into community chests.... Her trees are far more social than [she] suspected. There are no individuals. There aren't even separate species. Everything in the forest is the forest. Competition is not separable from endless flavors of cooperation. Trees fight no more than do the leaves on a single tree. It seems most of nature isn't red in tooth and claw, after all."
There is much to learn from trees.
Trees are bursting forth in flower in our parks, offering heady, sensory ecstasy of color, shape, and smell. Yet missing from the vibrant whites, pinks, yellows, and purples on some trees is a touch of green. On these trees, flowers are blooming but leaves have yet to appear.
Why is it that some trees -- Eastern Redbuds, Cornelian Cherry Dogwoods, Magnolias, and Crabapples to name a few -- flower before their leaves unfurl? With most plants, leaves begin to unfold and then flowers bloom, but for some the sequence is reversed. An insightful friend with a sense of humor likened this behavior human adolescence, with often distracting reproductive hormones triggering well ahead of long-term sustaining activities, like education and career advancement.
Flowers, as you know, are plants' reproductive structures. Once pollinated, they form fruit that bear seeds that enable new life. Leaves, on the other hand, are plants' source of sustenance, enabling the production of food through photosynthesis. Through chlorophyll and tiny stomata found primarily on the leaf's lower surface (a square centimeter of a leaf contains anywhere from a few thousand to hundreds of thousands) leaves breathe in carbon dioxide and breathe out blessed oxygen on which we depend, while producing sugar for plant nourishment. And through transpiration, water absorbed through root hairs evaporates through stomatal openings from the leaf surface, enabling water and minerals to be absorbed from the soil and conducted to the top of the plat.
Without leaves, trees die once stored sugar is depleted. Why would a tree flower before leafing out?
Hysteranthous -- the behavior of leaves expanding after flowers have opened -- occurs for a variety of reasons, which give these trees an edge in reproduction. These trees often pollinate through wind (19% of all pollination), which drifts more freely through a tree canopy in the absence of leafy vegetation, making it easier for these trees' inconspicuous flowers (catkins and cones) to be pollinated. And for the 80% of trees that pollinate by vertebrate or insects, early flowering offers the advantage of fewer other blossoms to distract pollinators. For understory trees and plants, like Redbuds, Forsythia, and Witch Hazel, that blossom solely from stored nutrients, flowering early avoids competition with vegetative growth for limited resources. Early flowering also allows for greater time for fruit growth and seed maturation as well as dispersal. Fruits and seed dispersed by birds need to mature to coincide with bird migration.
The sequencing of trees' and plants' flowering and leafing is diverse and driven by physical, biotic, and environmental conditions. One wonders how the same impact human reproduction.
It is happening: bursts of colors emerging in planted areas of our city as the daylight hours lengthen and temperatures warm.
First came a hint of yellow, barely visible within tightly packed buds. And then one day, just a few days ago, they appeared: the saturated, taxi-cab yellow of forsythia flower, 4-lobed wonders appearing before the shrub’s leaves unfurl. And now a broader palette of wisps of color bloom: the deep red hue of maple flowers, rust-colored elm blossoms, yellow-gold cornelian cherry dogwood flowers, and reddish-pink of crabapple blossoms, daffodils, sky-blue of bluebells, and the yellow and lilac of crocus flowers encircled by blade-like leaves.
Vibrant and expressive, wonders of form and color, these early spring flowers will soon be followed by lilacs and viburnum, wisteria, trillium and magnolia, azalea, cherry and redbud, tulip and tulip tree, and dogwoods – flowers that bloom locally in April, sequencing into blooms of late spring and summer.
Over the past few weeks, much of my attention has turned to the needs of work and family, obligations for which I am grateful as they tether me to relationships and projects I care deeply about. But noticing spring’s first flowers awakens me to what is bigger than my immediate world. I am jolted into awareness of nature and its cycles, of which we--even in the course of day-to-day obligations--are a part. "My goodness," I am reminded. "There is a whole world out there!"
Welcome to spring.
Winter, when so much seems dormant, may seem like a strange time to observe robust plant life, but if you take a close look at nearby trees and shrubs you will notice buds lying in wait to bloom. With a few more weeks of winter, now is a great time to observe these perfect, complete containers of embryonic stems, leaves, and flowers and to explore their variations.
Many of us think that buds appear in the spring. After all, that's when leaves and flowers emerge, following winter's chill. But buds typically form during the summer and fall prior to the spring in which they bloom. Known in the winter as "resting buds", they appear in forms, sizes, and locations unique to each species. "Terminal buds" appear at the end of twigs; "lateral buds" appear along the sides of twigs. Some buds appear individually, others in clusters. And, as with leaves, buds can be situated opposite one another on a twig or alternating, an additional way to identify and differentiate tree species.
As described in Nancy Ross Hugo's enchanting book Trees Up Close, the terminal bud of the American beech is pale yellow-brown, sharply-pointed spear shaped, and sits individually. The terminal buds of the red oak, by contrast, are course and stout and appear in clusters. On some trees, leaf and flower buds are indistinguishable before they begin to bloom. With other trees, such as dogwoods, flower buds may be rounder than leaf buds.
Resting buds are a great way to learn to explore the variety of bud formation and identify tree species. They also are a reminder that even in the depth of winter and in the absence of leaves, trees are abundant with life, ready to blossom with the emergence of spring.
Trees invite expression of love, especially beech trees. With their smooth gray bark, it's difficult to find an older beech tree that does not have a heart with initials carved into its trunk--at least in Central Park.
Much as hearts are among the more popular tattoos inked onto human skin, the tendency to etch hearts onto the elephant hide-like bark of beech trees suggests that memorializing love comes from a place deep within us. There is something that impels us to mark our feelings of love in ways that pierce below the surface, perhaps because love itself is so deeply felt.
Above are samples of hearts carved on beech trees in Central Park (alas, such etching harms the tree, inviting disease and if deep, disrupting the flow of nutrients).
Did the love last? Did the lovers grow old together like the tree that display their affection? We will never know. But the expression of love lives on, preserved for decades on the bark of trees.
Luminescent, intricate photographic renderings of botanical forms -- "British Algae", otherwise known as seaweed -- appear in light blue and white against a darker blue background. This is the work of Anna Atkins, a long-obscured 19th Century botanist, artist, and pioneer in the application of photography to science. Atkins's work is on display through February 17 at the New York Public Library,
Atkins applied the process of cyanotype, a cameraless photographic method utilizing light-sensitive paper to create in 1843 the first book illustrated exclusively with photographs. She donated the book, Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions, the Royal Society and dedicated it to her father, John Children, a fellow at the Royal Society. Children was friends with John Herschel, an astronomer and early photographic pioneer, who invented cyanotype in 1842 and introduced Atkins to the photographic medium.
Atkins's application of photography to capture botanical images was a leap forward for scientific advancement. As noted in the NYPL exhibit:
"In Renaissance Europe, artists' renditions exploded in popularity as the need arose for repeatable visual information to complement the printed word. The marked rise in the level of scientific inquiry from the 17th century forward paralleled a growing sophistication n these drawings and improved methods of distributing them. Among the most socially useful applications of art and science was the herbal, a genre of reference book on plants that describes their appearance as well as their medicinal, culinary or toxic properties.
The hand of the artist, however, was not always in sync with the eye of the scientist, Rare was the individual who could reconcile the two. Difficulty emerged when the artist could not comprehend- or perhaps wasn't sympathetic to--the kind of information of greatest value to the botanist. Before British Algae, the only pictorial catalogues of botanical collections were illustrations with hand-rendered artists' impressions, or sometimes with actual dried plants affixed to their pages."
The NYPL exhibit, the first dedicated to a full representation of Atkins's productions, not only offers insights into the history of photography and its application to science by a daring and innovative female scientist of the Victorian era, when gender roles usually relegated women to the domestic sphere. It also depicts flora in stunning detail and in ways that highly their exquisite beauty and symmetry.
If cold weather is giving you the blues, step inside the NYPL to discover nature's blue prints.
One of the blessings of winter is the opportunity to observe the architecture of hardwood trees. Shorn of concealing leaves, their framework becomes visible -- fractal geometry, with branches splitting off and again dividing and splitting, from the thick central trunk, a torso of sorts, culminating in finer twigs, like small fingers, reaching outward and upward.
Each type of tree displays unique morphology and growth patterns, with limbs branching off at wider or narrower angles, sometimes looping downward in a "u" shape before ascending, some knobby, gnarled and twisted, others soaring, erect, and tapering, some with great symmetry, others more variable -- a range of templates for achieving growth and access to nourishing sunlight.
The texture of trees' bark becomes more apparent in the crisp light of winter, the furrowed, patterned grooves of elms appear in greater relief, the smooth, silvery surface of beeches almost shines, and one senses the tactile feel of the scaly, thinly-plated bark of London Plane trees. Knots, burls, fissures, and cavities become visible. And amid the the muted winter palette, one can discern bark's varying colors, ranges of browns, grays, white, and green, sometimes with tinges of orange or red, colors often overshadowed by inviting greens and flamboyant autumn shades in the year's other seasons.
And then there is the experience of striding past a stand of denuded trees, their trunks tall and aligned, like sentinels. With each step, a movement felt more keenly horizontal in relation to the trees' verticality, one's perspective changes and the trees relative alignment with one another alters, with cinemographic and near-kaleidoscopic effect.
Perhaps winter hardwoods offer a metaphor as we embark on a new year: unadorned, the trees exhibit their underlying stark beauty, strength and symmetry. All is apparent, nothing is concealed. Yet, even in this state, small buds are visible, waiting for the right conditions to bloom and flourish.
"I prefer winter and fall, when you feel the bone structure of the landscape. Something waits beneath it; the whole story doesn't show." -- Andrew Wyeth
Few trees are more celebrated than the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree, a tradition that goes back to 1931, when workers building the area’s structures during the Great Depression pooled funds to buy a 20-foot balsam fir and decorated it with homemade garlands. The first public lighting, of a 50-foot tree, was in 1933, when Rockefeller Center made the tree an annual tradition.
Over the years, the tree’s decoration has taken on various themes and reflected the issues of the times. As described by Dana Schultz:
“During WWII, the tree’s décor switched to a more patriotic theme, with red, white, and blue globes and painted wooden stars. In 1942, no materials needed for the war could be used on the tree, and instead of one giant tree, there were three smaller ones, each decorated in one of the flag’s three colors…. Following the 9/11 attacks in 2001, the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree was once again adorned in patriotic red, white and blue.”
The 2018 Rockefeller Center Christmas, a 72 foot tall Norway Spruce, was sourced from Wallkill, New York, 75 miles north of Manhattan. Following the holiday, the tree’s lumber will be donated to Habitat for Humanity for home building, a practice since 2007.
A media sensation surrounded by gawking crowds and adorned in 50,000 LED lights and a Swarovski crystal star weighing 900 pounds, the 2018 Rockefeller Center tree has come a long way from its more humble origins. Yet, it is a reminder of how every tree is a star in its own way, and how it's in our nature to be awed by trees.
Each season offers its gifts to our senses, and with autumn our senses awaken to the powerful changes in nature around us. We observe the leaves changing color and falling to the ground, we hear crisp leaves underfoot, we feel a stronger breeze and cooler temperature, and deep within our bodies, with the waning daylight, perhaps comes a gnawing desire to retreat to our homes a little earlier and stay snug and warm, much like fellow creatures that hibernate.
Our sense us smell awakens too to the change in seasons. What causes that rich “autumn smell”? In a recent article journalist Matthew Cappucci provides insights:
Leaves are designed to produce “food” for the plant — glucose — through the process of photosynthesis. They take in six carbon dioxide and six water molecules at a time and, with a bit of sunlight, reshuffle them to form glucose and six oxygen molecules. That’s why plants are said to “purify” the air. They add breathable oxygen to it. But even though this reaction produces energy for the plant, it takes a lot of work to sustain.
In the fall, when the energy needed to create the “food” outweighs the energy afforded to the plant by the food itself, the leaves are no longer needed — and with that, the tree bids them farewell.
When the leaves fall, they die. As they take their last breath, they “exhale” all sorts of gases through tiny holes known as stomata. Among these compounds released are terpene and isoprenoids, common ingredients in the oils that coat plants. Terpenes are hydrocarbons, meaning their main ingredients are hydrogen and carbon. Pinene, a species of terpene, smells like — you guessed it — pine. It’s a main ingredient to the saplike resin that repairs the bark of conifers and pine trees.
Occasionally, these gas molecules excreted by plants — known as volatile organic compounds — interact with variants of nitrous oxide. This can lead to ozone production, which can smell a bit like chlorine or the exhaust of a dryer vent.
In addition to the release of gases contained within dying vegetation, two other effects contribute to the emotion-evoking scent that accompanies a northwest autumn breeze: decomposing plant matter, and pollutants trapped at the ground levels during the fall months.
The soil in most parts of the world is rich in Geotrichum candidum, a fungus that causes rotting and decomposition of fruits and vegetables and dense plant matter. In fact, Geotrichum candidum has been sampled on all seven continents. This is just one of many species that erodes away as deceased organisms, the chemical reactions of which contribute to the smell of “fall.”
Allow your senses to connect with autumn.
About this Blog
Hi! I'm Nancy Kopans, founder of Urban Edge Forest Therapy. Join me on an adventure to discover creative ways to connect with nature in your daily life, ways that are inspired by urban surroundings that can reveal unexpected beauty, with the potential to ignite a sense of wonder.