The Sensory World of Trees

Spring is the time when trees compel our attention. With buds opening, leaves growing, flowers emerging, trees seem to call out to us, even if we ignored them all winter. Trees have also been very much in the news in the last few years for three main reasons: 1) the continued loss of forests in some regions; 2) the importance of trees and forests in addressing climate change; and 3) new understanding of the way trees sense their world and communicate with other organisms.  Interest in the latter has been propelled by the book The Hidden Life of Trees and media coverage of the work of several scientists, notably Suzanne Simard at the University of British Columbia.  At Venerable Trees, we are beginning to offer workshops in the the sensory world of trees, under the title What Do Trees Know?

As you enjoy your sensory experiences with trees this spring, spend a moment to think about the sensory experiences of those trees.  Although trees have many of the senses that we do, and some we don’t, the sensory organs and mechanisms are different. Trees can smell other trees and other organisms, for example, even though they lack a nose. 

Here are some things that trees can do that you may not know about. 

  • Smelling/tasting
  • Hearing
  • Feeling (touch, not emotions)
  • Seeing – trees have an exquisite sense of vision through photoreceptors; they can see wavelengths that we can’t, including infrared and ultraviolet; they can detect subtle and sudden changes in light energyenergy that we don’t notice; and they can  respond to individual photons.
  • Measuring – trees are constantly monitoring and measuring their environment, they can measure:
    • Time to milliseconds;
    • Light direction, shadows;
    • Gravity direction, intensity;
    • Magnetic fields;

This is by no means an exhaustive list of the sensory world of trees. On June 23, we will explore the sensory world of trees and lots of other things in our next Field Course at West Sixth Farm in Frankfort.   We will take a detailed, but not technical, look at the lives of trees from their perspective.  We hope to see you there!

Shumard oak leaves in rain