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

Steve Mann and Tim Hackett consider Marigold Lands their finest development. (Rendering courtesy Marigold Lands)
Marigold residences grow more townhouses and condos in Central Saanich

50 condos, 14 townhouses up next for project adjacent to Pat Bay Highway

Norman Mogensen sets up strings for his beans in his plot in the Oak Bay community gardens. (Christine van Reeuwyk/News Staff)
Oak Bay gardener spends decades cultivating, improving daddy’s beans

85-year-old vegan part of the community gardens scene

The Pool at the Esquimalt Rec Centre. (Courtesy of theTownship of Esquimalt/ Facebook)
Esquimalt Rec Centre restarting everyone welcome swim times later this month

The 90-minute sessions will be on select evenings and weekends

Diana Durrand and Arlene Nesbitt celebrate the new artist space in 2014. Gage Gallery moves this summer from Oak Bay to Bastion Square in Victoria. (Black Press Media file photo)
Gage Gallery moving to Bastion Square

Vivid Connections, a showcase by Laura Feeleus and Elizabeth Carefoot, opens new venue June 29

Theatre SKAM is offering mobile, pop-up performances to Greater Victoria residents once again this summer. They’ll feature emerging artists Yasmin D’Oshun, Courtney Crawford, Kaelan Bain and Kendra Bidwell (left to right). (Courtesy of Theatre SKAM)
Theatre performances can be ordered to Greater Victoria front yards this summer

Theatre SKAM offering mobile, pop-up performances once again

Marco Mendicino, Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship during a press conference in Ottawa on Thursday, May 13, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Canada to welcome 45,000 refugees this year, says immigration minister

Canada plans to increase persons admitted from 23,500 to 45,000 and expedite permanent residency applications

Emily Steele holds up a collage of her son, 16-year-old Elijah-Iain Beauregard who was stabbed and killed in June 2019, outside of Kelowna Law Courts on June 18. (Aaron Hemens/Capital News)
Kelowna woman who fatally stabbed teen facing up to 1.5 years of jail time

Her jail sentence would be followed by an additional one to 1.5 years of supervision

Cpl. Scott MacLeod and Police Service Dog Jago. Jago was killed in the line of duty on Thursday, June 17. (RCMP)
Abbotsford police, RCMP grieve 4-year-old service dog killed in line of duty

Jago killed by armed suspect during ‘high-risk’ incident in Alberta

The George Road wildfire near Lytton, B.C., has grown to 250 hectares. (BC Wildfire Service)
B.C. drone sighting halts helicopters fighting 250 hectares of wildfire

‘If a drone collides with firefighting aircraft the consequences could be deadly,’ says BC Wildfire Service

A dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine is pictured at a vaccination site in Vancouver Thursday, March 11, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
NACI advice to mix vaccines gets varied reaction from AstraZeneca double-dosers

NACI recommends an mRNA vaccine for all Canadians receiving a second dose of a COVID-19 vaccine

A aerial view shows the debris going into Quesnel Lake caused by a tailings pond breach near the town of Likely, B.C., Tuesday, Aug. 5, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Updated tailings code after Mount Polley an improvement: B.C. mines auditor

British Columbia’s chief auditor of mines has found changes to the province’s requirements for tailings storage facilities

A North Vancouver man was arrested Friday and three police officers were injured after a 10-person broke out at English Bay on June 19, 2021. (Youtube/Screen grab)
Man arrested, 3 police injured during 10-person brawl at Vancouver beach

The arrest was captured on video by bystanders, many of whom heckled the officers as they struggled with the handcuffed man

Patrick O’Brien, a 75-year-old fisherman, went missing near Port Angeles Thursday evening. (Courtesy of U.S. Coast Guard)
Search for lost fisherman near Victoria suspended, U.S. Coast Guard says

The 75-year-old man was reported missing Thursday evening

Most Read