New Scientist - Features

Suzanne Simard interview: How I uncovered the hidden language of trees

First she discovered the wood wide web. Now Suzanne Simard has found that underground connections in a forest are like a brain that allows trees to form societies – and look out for their kin



Life



28 April 2021

New Scientist Default Image

An old-growth conifer forest in British Columbia, Canada

R. Tyler Gross/Getty Images/Cavan Images

Suzanne Simard was raised in the Monashee mountains in British Columbia, Canada. Her research, beginning with the discovery of the wood wide web, has transformed our understanding of forests. She is now a professor of forest ecology at the University of British Columbia.

FEW scientists make much impact with their PhD thesis, but, in 1997, Suzanne Simard did just that. She had discovered that forest trees share and trade food via fungal networks that connect their roots. Her research on “the wood wide web” made the cover of Nature. What was then a challenge to orthodox ideas is today widely accepted.

But Simard and her colleagues continue to challenge our preconceptions of how plants interact. Among other things, their research shows that the wood wide web is like a brain and can communicate information throughout the entire forest, that trees recognise their offspring and nurture them and that lessons learned from past experiences can be transmitted from old trees to young ones.

Simard calls herself a “forest detective”. Her childhood was spent in the woods of British Columbia, Canada, where her family had made a living as foresters for generations. As a young woman, she joined the family profession, but soon realised that modern forestry practices were threatening the survival of the ecosystem she loved. She knew that, when logged with a lighter touch, forests can heal themselves, and she set out to discover how they are so naturally resilient. Along the way, her concern for the future of forests sparked an intense curiosity about what makes them tick. …

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