Dr. Suzanne Simard of Nelson, a professor of forest ecology at UBC, is the author of Finding the Mother Tree. Photo: Brendan Ko

Dr. Suzanne Simard of Nelson, a professor of forest ecology at UBC, is the author of Finding the Mother Tree. Photo: Brendan Ko

In the forest, a B.C. scientist discovers trees take care of their own

UBC professor Dr. Suzanne Simard’s book describes research into fungal networks’ role in forest health

In the 1990s when Nelson’s Suzanne Simard was a researcher for the B.C. forest ministry, her ideas were considered to be on the fringe.

Governments and the forest industry ignored her when she presented research showing that trees communicate with each other through a complex underground network of mycorrhizal fungi.

She conducted experiments while earning her PhD that showed that there can be hundreds of kilometres of mycelium networks under a single footstep, connecting individual plants of the same species but also different species, with nodes and links, somewhat like the internet.

Since then Simard has become a professor in forestry at UBC, and has continued to do groundbreaking scientific research into mycorrhizal fungi and networks, finding that trees have complex ways of distributing nutrients and supporting each other, and that forests behave as a single organism.

Her research has been replicated elsewhere and her ideas have become mainstream.

But not in B.C.’s government or forest industry, where the implications of her work would upend the way trees are grown and harvested here.

“The industry really shouldn’t be clearcutting if we’re trying to save carbon and save biodiversity and foster regeneration,” she told the Nelson Star, “We should be doing partial cutting.”

Simard describes the biology and the politics of her work, as well as her personal journey as a researcher, in Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest. The book was an immediate hit when it was released May 4, and currently resides at No. 5 on the New York Times bestseller list.

Mother trees are the biggest, oldest trees in the forest.

She originally called them hub trees but switched to mother trees because “these trees nurture their young. A mother tree can be connected to hundreds of other trees. We have found mother trees will send excess carbon through the network to seedlings and this increases seedling survival by four times.”

Mother trees recognize and prioritize their own seedlings, she says, giving more nutrients to them than to others.

In a series of experiments, Simard discovered that trees transmit warnings to their neighbours about dangers such as spruce budworm.

“We were infecting these Douglas fir trees and we found that these trees, when they were stressed out, sent defence signals through the mycorrhizal network to the ponderosa pines, (which then) amped up their DNA production to create more defence enzymes, and that protected them against the spruce budworm as well.”

Simard has lived in Nelson since 2006. Her mother was born in Rossland and her grandparents lived in Nakusp, Edgewood and Mabel Lake. Her paternal grandfather was a horse logger.

“I got to know forestry from that perspective,” she says. “I grew up in the woods, so I knew the forest is this regenerative place where from selective logging the forest just rebounded immediately. You couldn’t even tell that he’d done it.”

Simard lives full time in Nelson during the pandemic, but otherwise divides her time between here and UBC.

In her 2016 TED Talk, Simard states that “forests are not just trees, they are complex systems of hubs and networks that overlap. They are vulnerable, not only to natural disturbance but to high-grade and clearcut logging. You can take out one or two hub trees but there comes a tipping point.”

She says arrival at that tipping point is being hastened by climate change, and that Canadian forests are now net emitters of carbon, where they used to be a carbon sink. In other words they are losing more carbon than they are gaining.

“And that’s huge on the world stage,” Simard says. “You can actually mitigate the loss of carbon from these sites by partial cutting, because you don’t lose nearly as much and you can actually keep it in the ground and keep it in the trees.”

She said this is common knowledge among experts but it has not been taken up by governments or industry.

“There’s more and more research that’s been done that shows biodiversity is correlated with productivity and health of ecosystems across the board.”

Simard says partial cutting should be done in second growth forests, because they have already lost a lot of their carbon, and old growth should be left alone.

“Old growth forests (like the local ones in) Incomappleux and Lardeau, those forests are full of carbon, that’s what we’ve measured. They’re just rich, rich, rich, in carbon. So are all the coastal forests, they’re unique in the world, they’re hotspots and there is lots of data to show this, and we should not be going in and cutting those forests.”

Simard says forests need all their natural inhabitants, plant and animal. The tendency of foresters to use herbicides to eliminate deciduous trees in favour of more commercially valuable conifers is a direct threat to healthy forest biodiversity, and is an example of how far behind the times forest policy is.

“The plan is to take every last stick from the working forest, basically. The government needs to shape up. And the problem that they have is that they’ve sold us out. The big corporate industry giants have consolidated, they’ve got their hands on most of the tenure, we’ve made commitments to them for volume harvested, and the government doesn’t want to reduce the timber volume that is cut annually.”

The greater the biodiversity, she says, the better we are prepared for extreme events like insect outbreaks or forest fires. Having lots of big trees in a forest reduces the risk of wildfire.

“Because they have thick bark. They’re deep rooted, they bring water up from down deep through a process called hydraulic lift, and they redistribute that humidity, keeping the forests moist.”

But when we replace them with plantations of conifers like pine and fir, and then weed out the deciduous trees and shrubs, she says, forests become more flammable.

At UBC, Simard teaches a variety of courses in forest ecology. She says her students are very receptive to the research outlined in her book.

“And it’s not just my students. The most common response I get on email, which I get lots and lots of, is ‘I always knew this in my heart.’ That’s the most common response, whether it’s from a little kid to a grandmother to a CEO of some big international corporation, they all basically say the same thing: ‘I always knew this in my heart.’”

Related:

Province’s response to old growth forest report falls short, says Nelson scientist

B.C. urged to protect at-risk old growth while it works to transform forestry policy

Breastless Friends Forever: How breast cancer brought four women together



bill.metcalfe@nelsonstar.com

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter

Just Posted

All Campbell River minor baseball teams will be relocated from Nunns Creek Park, pictured, to the Sportsplex at Willow Point Park, by 2022. Marissa Tiel/ Campbell River Mirror
City council approves ‘temporary’ relocation plan for minor baseball

Adult slo pitch moving to Nunn’s Creek, all minor baseball goes to Sportsplex, by 2022

Craft Brewing and Malting program student Ellie Hadley plans to use her newfound skills and knowledge to set up a distillery in Port Alberni. (PHOTO COURTESY LEE SIMMONS)
Something’s brewing with North Island College’s newest program

Port Alberni grad Ellie Hadley hopes to turn new skills into thriving business

Local hiker Kara Ruff captured this double rainbow hiking Ripple Rock near Campbell River on June 15. Photo courtesy Kara Ruff.
Local hiker captures double rainbow

Double rainbow photographed from Ripple Rock trail viewpoint

BC Ferries’ newest Island Class vessel is experiencing an issue with one of its thrusters off the Algerian coast. Photo courtesy patbaywebcam.com.
BC Ferries newest vessel having mechanical issues in Mediterranean

Island 4 will be repaired in Spain before crossing Atlantic

People line up to get their COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination centre, Thursday, June 10, 2021 in Montreal. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz
Vaccines, low COVID case counts increase Father’s Day hope, but risk is still there

Expert says people will have to do their own risk calculus before popping in on Papa

The Co-op gas station at Whiskey Creek is burning after a camper van exploded while refueling just before 4 p.m. on Thursday, June 17, 2021. (FACEBOOK PHOTO)
Exploding camper van torches Highway 4 gas station between Qualicum Beach and Port Alberni

Highway traffic blocked after Whiskey Creek gas station erupts into flames

Helen Austin performing with Trent Freeman at the 2018 Vancouver Island MusicFest. Austin is one of the many performers listed for the 2021 event.
Vancouver Island MusicFest goes virtual for 2021

Black Press to stream 25 hours of programming July 9-11

Greater father involvement in the home leads to improved childhood development and increased marital satisfaction, says expert. (Black Press Media file photo)
Vancouver Island researcher finds lack of father involvement a drag on gender equality

Working women still taking on most child and household duties in Canada: UVic professor

FILE – A science class at L.A. Matheson Secondary in Surrey, B.C. on March 12, 2021. (Lauren Collins/Surrey Now Leader)
Teachers’ union wants more COVID transmission data as B.C. prepares for back-to-school

BCTF says that details will be important as province works on plan for September

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry outlines B.C.’s COVID-19 restart plan, May 25, 2021, including larger gatherings and a possible easing of mandatory masks on July 1. (B.C. government photo)
B.C. records 120 new COVID-19 cases, second vaccines accelerating

Lower Pfizer deliveries for early July, Moderna shipments up

A Heffley Creek peacock caught not one - but two - lifts on a logging truck this month. (Photo submitted)
Heffley Creek-area peacock hops logging trucks in search of love

Peacock hitched two lifts in the past month

The Calgary skyline is seen on Friday, Sept. 15, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
2 deaths from COVID-19 Delta variant in Alberta, 1 patient was fully immunized

Kerry Williamson with Alberta Health Services says the patients likely acquired the virus in the hospital

The first suspension bridge is the tallest in Canada, with a second suspension bridge just below it. The two are connected by a trail that’s just over 1 km. (Claire Palmer photo)
PHOTOS: The highest suspension bridges in Canada just opened in B.C.

The Skybridge in Golden allows visitors to take in views standing at 130 and 80 metres

Most Read