Across the natural world giants live amongst us: Living, breathing, creators tinkering with the atmosphere, the environment and creating the perfect conditions for countless species to thrive. Trees are life itself. They can live for thousands of years and they have a hidden power that extends their influence into the air we breathe and the soil we walk on. Trees stand tall as some of the biggest organisms alive on the planet and these gentle, long-living, immovable giants work hard day and night to provide a healthy ecosystem upon which life depends.
Trees purify the air, water and soil and they have been identified as ‘the most effective solution for climate change’ that we have at our disposal today. Researchers identified this solution claiming an area the size of the US is available across the world which could in theory be set aside for the planting of trees. So with these God-like powers and influencing environments right across the globe it seems crazy that we should ever think about destroying trees at the scale we have. Destruction of the Amazon has soared to new highs as a new government appeals to the lowest common denominator amongst its electorate — the pursuit of wealth at the expense of the natural world. The first step to understanding the value of trees in and of themselves (i.e. not as a product that we will consume) is to understand the intricate ways in which they benefit our own lives.
Why are trees awesome?
Trees help us in the fight against global warming
Trees suck CO2 right out of the air and in the process give us oxygen. When we chop trees down and decimate whole swathes we are literally destroying the lungs of the Earth. Trees physically remove the CO2 from the atmosphere through the process of photosynthesis and turn it into carbon, or what we commonly know as wood. Chopping trees down and utilising the wood is something that humans have done for thousands of years but without replanting and protecting the world’s forests we are creating an imbalance whereby more CO2 is released back into the atmosphere than the planet’s remaining tree population can absorb. This has a devastating impact on millions of wild animals and bird species around the world, by directly removing their homes through habitat loss, but it also impacts on every living thing on the plant by helping to accelerate the levels of CO2 in the atmosphere, which in turn speed up global warming and climate change.
In the simple act of photosynthesis and the gaseous exchange of CO2 for oxygen trees are both reducing the threat to our existence and increasing the air we need to keep us alive.
Trees provide mental and physical health benefits and improve our wellbeing
There is a staggering body of evidence (which is growing!) that shows how beneficial trees can be on our individual health and wellbeing. The website NHS Forest has collated this evidence linking to it here and detailing some amazing research that proves that even sight of trees from a hospital bedroom can help accelerate patient recovery. Researchers are finding, though the exact mechanisms are not yet clear, that exposure to trees and green environments reduces stress and anxiety amongst a whole host of other benefits that have been identified.
Trees are so powerful they can:
- boost the immune system
- lower blood pressure
- reduce stress
- improve mood
- increase ability to focus, even in children with ADHD
- accelerate recovery from surgery or illness
- increase energy level
- improve sleep
The Japanese are so tuned into the power of trees that they even have a word for the act of what translates roughly as “forest bathing” — it’s called shinrin-yoku and it’s a house-hold phrase in Japan that means immersing oneself in nature for better wellbeing and relaxation
Its a simple premise. Relaxation reduces cortisol levels, which in turn reduces stress levels and anxiety and it lends itself well to the notion of forests as places of sanctuary.
Trees are sanctuaries. Whoever knows how to speak to them, whoever knows how to listen to them, can learn the truth. They do not preach learning and precepts, they preach, undeterred by particulars, the ancient law of life.Hermann Hesse
Decomposition and Decay, the building blocks of life, depend on Trees
Everything that lives… dies and trees provide the necessary link to ensuring the cycle of life continues uninterrupted. In the closed-loop cycle of natural processes trees are essential in providing the underground ecosystem environment in order to facilitate rebirth, regrowth and new life. So how do they do it? It’s all in the roots.
Why are tree roots so important? They provide the fungi in the soil with a structure to call home and a food source to live on: a co-existence that provides benefits for both species.
Fungi are essential to the wellbeing and ongoing structure of all the world’s natural woodlands and green spaces where plant life grows. Without fungi decomposition would not take place and the forest floor would pile up high in dead plant-matter and waste. The nutrients would not be returned to the soil and living things would not return their matter to the ecosystems that created and sustained them during life.
A lack of nutrients being cycled through the system would bring an end to the life-cycle as we know it. So fungi is sort of… important! A particular type of fungi called mycorrhizal is especially important to the lives of trees and researchers are only just beginning to understand the fascinating relationships between this fungi and trees, a symbiosis that can be found wherever trees grow. The fungi, being within the soil, needs to obtain its food sources from the tree, relying on the sugars that the tree creates as a consequence of photosynthesis. In return the fungi provides the tree with nutrients that the tree is unable to extract from the soil itself.
It is thought that these types of symbiotic relationships enabled trees to conquer the globe and establish themselves as an indispensable part of worldwide natural ecosystems.
Thousands of species live in, on and around trees
The mighty Oak alone will support over 280 different species of insects alone and it provides its own unique ecosystem that is rich in biodiversity. Oak trees support more varied forms of life than any other tree and the hundreds and thousands of insects that depend on them for food in turn provide food for a huge range of birdlife. This particular Oak, located in Richmond Park, London is thought to be at least 750 years old!
The acorns of the Oak also provide food for foraging badgers and other mammals in the Autumn whilst its dying leaves fall to the ground, supporting invertebrates, beetles and the fungi that helps to return the plant nutrients back to the soil and indicating the season’s turn. During the spring, caterpillars and butterflies munch on the oak’s flowers.
The Oak is central to myth and lore across Europe and it’s little wonder why; its central position in the web of life reveals it to be a grand old dame of the woods and one that should be respected for her power and influence.
Trees stop erosion and prevent floods
In a future that looks foreboding and one in which we will undoubtedly see a huge increase of flooding as a consequence of higher levels of rainfall around the world, trees look set to play an increasingly important role in stemming the forecasted rise in precipitation and supporting the prevention of flooding.
Whole communities are set to face flooding challenges, with my own hometown, Carlisle in Cumbria, experiencing the worst experiencing the worst episode of flooding in 600 hundred years in 2015. It’s time for society to look at the reasons for flooding in a comprehensive way and to explore the benefits that trees can provide in reducing flooding.
And trees are masters in water retention; they’ve had millions of years to evolve the exact mechanisms for it. So how do they do it? Well the flood risk is reduced in a number of ways and it all starts from the very moment that a raindrop, having hurtled thousands of feet through the atmosphere, hits a tree’s leaf.
When a raindrop hits and bounces off a leaf it sometimes disperses, simply evaporating into the air. Collectively, the power of millions of leaves also serves to act as a physical barrier, slowing the rate at which water then enters the river system. And because flooding is nearly always created when too much water enters the river systems to quickly; this simple act helps to reduce the risk.
Tree roots also have a role to play. Because they are constantly growing, pushing soil around and creating tiny channels within the ground, when the water hits the ground huge quantities of it can drain into the ground where it simply becomes trapped and gradually drains away. Roots also bind the soil together acting as a huge hand-like structure, gripping the soil in place in order to provide the tree with a secure foundation. This has an additional impact of reducing the amount of soil that enters the river system and so less soil in the river means more space for water — so trees help to keep big rivers big and water in the atmosphere and in the soil. This reduces the risk of flooding.
Thousands and thousands of trees working together in this way hold the cumulative power to completely obliterate the risk of flooding — we just need to understand the depth of their influence and appreciate the role they can play. And then extrapolate it to a much, much larger scale via huge programmes of tree planting.
Trees stop UV rays burning us, provide an effective sunscreen and urban cooling effect
A study has shown how trees can potentially reduce the temperature in urban crowded cities by a huge 5 degrees and with more than half of the world’s population already living in cities, and growing, this relief can’t come soon enough.
The conclusions from this research seem obvious: where there is shade, as provided by tree canopy, the ground can be up to 5 degrees cooler whilst simultaneously providing an effective sunscreen. This effect is achieved not purely by the shading influence of each tree but also by the fact that trees effectively ‘perspire’. Each tree is pumping gallons of water up from the ground, through its trunk, its branches and its leaves which then feed into the stomata of each leaf, tiny holes a bit like pores, where the tree effectively exhales water. And water vapour from trees (as you can see in the header image) helps to reduce the temperature.
The urban island effect means that temperatures in cities with ever increasing populations are set to soar and global warming will exacerbate this. It’s essential that urban planners consider the role trees can play so that when they start to design the next generation of urban spaces they can consider how to integrate the world’s oldest and most environmentally friendly plants into the development of urban spaces.
Trees capture and restrict pollution
The London plane tree is uniquely adapted to thrive in the urban environment, simply going about its business, capturing and restricting pollution. Its flakey bark breaks away in large chunks allowing the tree to shed its skin periodically and clean itself of the pollutant that would choke another tree less well-adapted. The waxy residue on the surface of it’s leaves attract pollutants and particulates to stick to the leaves and later wash off when it rains helping to clean and filter the city air.
Even its roots are well adapted to living in compacted soils, ensuring its health is not damaged by the heavy traffic, roadworks and other disturbances which would easily damage other, less hardy trees.
At a macro level, aside from absorbing a third of global emissions every year trees capture nitrogen oxides, ammonia and sulfur dioxide which settle on the leaves of the tree and are absorbed through its stomata (tiny holes in the leaves of each tree).
All of these actions help to maintain trees as nature’s number 1 air conditioning system; Mother Earth’s lungs which work hard to help to keep the rest of the planet healthy and in good shape.
Trees provide food for humans
It’s not just insects, birds and mammals that depend on trees for their food. If you’ve recently eaten a piece of fruit, chances are it came from a tree. People, communities and whole societies around the world make hundreds of products from fruits, nuts, seeds, leaves and even the sap of a tree. Maple Syrup?
Trees provide an ongoing bounty to the world around them. The evolutionary trade off is that in return their seeds are dispersed across a wider area, which helps their species to expand. The energy expended by the tree in producing such delicious food is more than paid off, in biological terms, by the wider dispersal of it’s seeds – a pretty smart move for a species that cannot move!
Today foods such as apples, oranges, bananas, brazil nuts, mango and countless other foods are produced as a result of this largely seasonal harvest.
In fact some trees provide such useful products that they can end of being a detriment to their immediate natural environment. The Palm Oil tree has enabled a 92.84 billion dollar industry to rapidly take shape which is destroying some of the world’s most precious rainforest.
The massive expansion of the palm oil industry shows us how difficult it will be to adapt all kinds of human development in a way that doesn’t destroy the planet. Even sustainable development poses serious questions that present a dilemma for us when we consider our current mode of capitalism.
We need to see the value in all types of trees, including the ones that provide the most impact in terms of cleaning the air and providing us with the oxygen we breathe: the rainforests produce a considerably amount of oxygen in comparison to other forested areas around the globe. After all we can live without palm oil, but humans will find it quite difficult to live in a polluted world lacking the oxygen we need.
Trees can actually heal you
This is where the science gets interesting because trees have proven healing powers. As they grow they release antimicrobial oils called phytoncides which studies have shown can activate the human immune system and encourage our own bodies to produce NK cells which stimulate an anti-cancer response.
These essential oils help to protect the trees from germs but in the process have a host of benefits for people too. They can improve our mood, boost the immune system reduce blood pressure, heart rate, stress, anxiety, and confusion; improve sleep and creativity and help tackle depression.
Qing Li, chairman of the Japanese Society for Forest Medicine has written a book called Forest Bathing. The book asks us to:
Notice how a tree sways in the wind. Run your hands over its bark. Take in its citrusy scent. As a society we suffer from nature deficit disorder, but studies have shown that spending mindful, intentional time around trees–what the Japanese call shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing–can promote health and happiness.Qing Li
Qing Li is committed to exploring the scientific benefits of trees. He writes:
I am a scientist, not a poet. And I have been investigating the science behind that feeling for many years. I want to know why we feel so much better when we are in nature…Some people study forests. Some people study medicine. I study forest medicine to find out all the ways walking in the forest can improve our wellbeing.Qing Li
And taking into account the wealth of evidence and research he has compiled we can take the figurative leaf out of his book.
And if you didn’t need any further persuading of the value of trees then go out and enjoy walking amongst these gentle giants because the final awe-inspiring reason that we should all treasure and appreciate our forest is because…