TEDxAUCollege | The Language of Roots

The Language of Roots

In Biology, the differences between plants and animals begin at the lack of a nervous system in the former. Plants, unlike humans, have no recognition of kin and therefore are devoid of the social structures that are so characteristic of many animal species including ourselves. But what if I told you that these facts could be possibly wrong and dispelled by research conducted by a research team in Canada. Susan Dudley claims that plants have the ability to recognize and favor kin. Though Dudley was met with harsh criticism, other research has backed up her claim with a multitude of studies.

Rubén Torices and his team conducted an experiment in which they compared the growth of the species Moricandia moricandioides in its own pot compared to the species Moricandia moricandioides grown in a pot with kin. What they found was that the latter grew more flowers and their pots were more crowded.

Meanwhile, another Canadian (an ecologist), Suzanne Simard, compares the kinship of plants to that of families in her TEDtalk. Imagine a city populated by autotrophic inhabitants – its citizens communicate through an underground web of roots. Great towering mother firs and birches transfer excess carbon to seedling offspring, and make space for them to grow by reducing the spread of their own roots. Simard traced the transfer of carbon through roots with isotope tracers. This communal network bears resemblance to the structures of human families–parent trees provide for their own children and pass on wisdom just as we do.

While this phenomenon still is surrounded by much doubt, it is a concept worth thinking about and exploring further. Simard mentions the possibilities this discovery might have on climate change. Perhaps these networks can allow forests to self-heal. Simard also mentions that this knowledge can help us to be better conservationists–as we try to limit cutting trees, we can also consider saving networks so mother trees can pass on “wisdom” in order to teach their saplings to better fend for themselves, thus giving rise to more resilient forests. By attempting to understand the kinship of trees, we can help stronger forests grow.