ACCORDING TO the dictionary definition, language is what people use when we talk to each other. Looked at this way, we are the only beings who can use language, because the concept is limited to our species. But wouldn’t it be interesting to know whether trees can also talk to each other? But how? They definitely don’t produce sounds, so there’s nothing we can hear. Branches creak as they rub against one another and leaves rustle, but these sounds are caused by the wind and the tree has no control over them. Trees, it turns out, have a completely different way of communicating: they use scent.
Scent as a means of communication? The concept is not totally unfamiliar to us. Why else would we use deodorants and perfumes? And even when we’re not using these products, our own smell says something to other people, both consciously and subconsciously. There are some people who seem to have no smell at all; we are strongly attracted to others because of their aroma. Scientists believe pheromones in sweat are a decisive factor when we choose our partners—in other words, those with whom we wish to procreate. So it seems fair to say that we possess a secret language of scent, and trees have demonstrated that they do as well.
For example, four decades ago, scientists noticed something on the African savannah. The giraffes there were feeding on umbrella thorn acacias, and the trees didn’t like this one bit. It took the acacias mere minutes to start pumping toxic substances into their leaves to rid themselves of the large herbivores. The giraffes got the message and moved on to other trees in the vicinity. But did they move on to trees close by? No, for the time being, they walked right by a few trees and resumed their meal only when they had moved about 100 yards away.
The reason for this behaviour is astonishing. The acacia trees that were being eaten gave off a warning gas (specifically, ethylene) that signalled to neighbouring trees of the same species that a crisis was at hand. Right away, all the forewarned trees also pumped toxins into their leaves to prepare themselves. The giraffes were wise to this game and therefore moved farther away to a part of the savannah where they could find trees that were oblivious to what was going on. Or else they moved upwind. For the scent messages were carried to nearby trees on the breeze, and if the animals walked upwind, they could find acacias close by that had no idea the giraffes were there.
Similar processes are at work in our forests here at home. Beeches, spruce, and oaks all register pain as soon as some creature starts nibbling on them. When a caterpillar takes a hearty bite out of a leaf, the tissue around the site of the damage changes. In addition, the leaf tissue sends out electrical signals, just as human tissue does when it is hurt. However, the signal is not transmitted in milliseconds, as human signals are; instead, the plant signal travels at the slow speed of a third of an inch per minute. Accordingly, it takes an hour or so before defensive compounds reach the leaves to spoil the pest’s meal. Trees live their lives in the really slow lane, even when they are in danger. But this slow tempo doesn’t mean that a tree is not on top of what is happening in different parts of its structure. If the roots find themselves in trouble, this information is broadcast throughout the tree, which can trigger the leaves to release scent compounds. And not just any old scent compounds, but compounds that are specifically formulated for the task at hand.
This ability to produce different compounds is another feature that helps trees fend off attack for a while. When it comes to some species of insects, trees can accurately identify which bad guys they are up against. The saliva of each species is different, and the tree can match the saliva to the insect. Indeed, the match can be so precise that the tree can release pheromones that summon specific beneficial predators. The beneficial predators help the tree by eagerly devouring the insects that are bothering them. For example, elms and pines call on small parasitic wasps that lay their eggs inside leaf-eating caterpillars. As the wasp larvae develop, they devour the larger caterpillars bit by bit from the inside out. Not a nice way to die. The result, however, is that the trees are saved from bothersome pests and can keep growing with no further damage. The fact that trees can recognize saliva is, incidentally, evidence for yet another skill they must have. For if they can identify saliva, they must also have a sense of taste.
Excerpted with permission from Penguin Random House