There is a biological highway hidden beneath the surface and entangled in the roots of the Earth’s amazing and diverse flora that connects members of the plant kingdom to what researchers call “Wood Wide Web”. This organic network works much like our internet network, allowing plants to communicate, distribute food or even harm the other.
The network is composed of thin mushroom filets called mycelium that grow underground up to a few meters from the partner plant, which means that the entire life of the plant in an area can be connected to the network and to another. The relationship of the roots of plants and fungi is known as mycorrhiza and is beneficial to both parties involved: the plants provide carbohydrates to the mushrooms and in exchange, the fungi help to collect the water and provide nutrients such as phosphorus and nitrogen to their partner plant.
It has been discovered that this fungal network allows plants to help one another in growth and fulfillment. Suzanne Simard, a graduate of the University of British Columbia, was the first to show that Douglas-fir and birch were able to transfer carbon to small trees that do not receive enough sunlight, allowing young plants to grow in the shade of other trees. Simard thinks that the majority of young plants in the world could not survive without this fungal network.
A study conducted by Ren Sen Zeng of the South China Agricultural University found that this interconnection also allows plants to warn each other of the potential risk.
In this study, the team grew potted tomato plants in pairs, where mycorrhizae were formed. When the fungal networks formed, one plant from each pair was sprayed with Alternaria Solani, a fungus that causes late blight early in the plant’s life. Hermetic plastic bags were used to ensure that there was no interaction with the top of the soil. After 65 hours, the team tried to infect the second plant in each pair and found that those with mycelium were much less likely to contract the disease and were much less damaged if they contracted than those without mycelium.
A similar study was conducted by David Johnson, a graduate of Aberdeen University, and a team of colleagues who showed that beans also use the fungal network to intercept imminent danger on another plant. When the starving aphids feed on the leaves of one of the bean feet, the plants are connected via the mycelium to begin excreting their chemical aphid defenses, while the unrelated feet have no reaction.
“There was some form of signal between these plants regarding the herbivory of aphids, and these signals were transported through a mycorrhizal mycelium network. ~ David Johnson ~
Like our internet network, this fungal network is subject to cybercrime, terrorism and even war.
Some plants, such as the ghost orchid, do not have the chlorophyll needed for photosynthesis and must absorb the nutrients they need to survive on the surrounding plants. Other plants, such as Tagete lemon and American black walnut, are found to release toxins into the network to prevent the growth of surrounding plants in the fight for water and light.
Some research suggests that animals such as insects and worms may be able to detect subtle exchanges of nutrients across the network, making it easier for them to find tasty roots for food; However, this has never been conclusively demonstrated in the experiment.
“These fungal networks make communication between plants, including those of different species, faster, and more efficient. We do not think about that because generally we can only see what is above the ground. But most of the plants you can see are connected underground, not directly by their roots, but by a network of mycelium. ~ Kathryn Morris ~
The more we learn about this phenomenon, the more our understanding of the flora of our planet will continue to change. Perhaps one day we will be able to map these complex fungal networks with complete peace of mind to fully appreciate them.
But ourselves, dear friends, do we know how to communicate with nature, with the trees and all the animals that populate our beautiful earth?
What do we communicate to trees and animals? Of fear, of terror, do we have tenderness for this earth?
It is obviously not about being dreamers, romantics with old-fashioned feelings.
Let’s look at trees as friends, so old; they have always been there, they have always helped us, protected us. They are our oldest and most faithful friends, can we have a feeling of affection from time to time? If only from time to time, yes sometimes, do not forget to say thank you.
Sources : Fleming, Nic. « Plants Talk to Each Other Using an Internet of. » BBC Earth. N.p., 11 Nov. 2014. Web. 19 Mar. 2015.
Harley, J. L., and J. S. Waid. « A Method of Studying Active Mycelia on Living Roots and Other Surfaces in the Soil. » Sciencedirect. Department of Botany, University of Oxford, England, n.d. Web. 19 Mar. 2015.