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You Talkin' to Me?

May 13, 2010

I live in a normal suburb.

And that means neighbors talk. They gossip. Word travels in what almost seems faster than the speed of light.

I was out front this weekend trimming my shrubs when a neighbor approached me and shared how another neighbor's home was going up for sale. Then another neighbor scurried over to brag about his new air compressor. And yet another felt the need to come by to complain about his work, his family and everything in between.

I became a gossip magnet - not something I enjoy. And no matter how many times I nodded and smiled, I couldn't get rid of them.

So I retreated to the backyard.

I sat on the patio and listened to the tree leaves rustle in the woods behind my yard. I watched the sunlight dance on them as it filtered down to the forest floor. I watched the thin, tall trunks and curvy branches sway softly with the wind. I enjoyed the solitude. And then my next door neighbor leaned over my fence and asked me a question about his lilac tree. (When you work with trees, neighbors are always looking for free advice.) He noticed me staring off as I answered him. "Sorry to interrupt," he quickly said, walking away. "Good thing these trees aren't always yapping, huh?"

Little did he know how wrong he was. There is plenty of research out there proving that trees do communicate in their own way.

In an article in the December 1984 issue of Smithsonian magazine, researchers revealed that trees can actively defend themselves against insect attacks, even to the point of communicating a warning to the other trees in the vicinity. The suggestion was first made in the spring of 1979 by chemist and zoologist Davey Rhoades, who was working at a field site near Seattle. He took two groups of willow trees - one was a control group and the other he infested with caterpillars. A few weeks later, he fed his laboratory caterpillars leaves from both trees and found that both groups of trees had flooded their leaves with an unsavory chemical that discouraged the caterpillars' growth. So the attacked trees slipped the control group a warning signal - not unlike Batman's bat signal, I like to think - presumably by releasing a chemical into the air.

It's unclear whether tree communication is active (initiated by the tree that is injured) or passive (perceived by the nearby, but unharmed tree). Rhoades has always said he'd like to think it's active and that plants show an organized behavior.

When trees go through stress, such as unusually high or low temperatures, pollution and droughts, they become vulnerable to certain secondary insects and diseases. This is because they devote energy reserves into greater amounts of the chemical that helps protect them against insects. A September 2008 release by the National Center for Atmospheric Research showed stressed walnut trees emit large amounts of an aspirin-like chemical into the air, possibly as a warning to other trees to prepare for the changes. They describe the vulnerability like people catching a cold after being soaked by rain - it's not the rain that causes the cold but the fact that the drenching lowers the body's resistance to cold viruses.

"These findings show tangible proof that plant-to-plant communication occurs on the ecosystem level," said Alex Guenther, who co-authored the study. "It appears that plants have the ability to communicate through the atmosphere."

So while all of this proves that I can't even escape neighborhood communication even in my backyard while enjoying the trees, at least they keep their gossip between each other.

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