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Carbon, Education, Sustainability, Timber  |  08 April 2022

Trees are complex by Mark Chester MICFor.

Trees in urban settings can help to reduce air pollution and bring nature to a concrete landscape
When a tree matures, it becomes an attractive habitat for birds, insects, and fungi
Photo shows a modern woodhenge in Worth Matravers, Dorset
Trees can form incredible connections between themselves and their environment
There is so much more to trees than a simple source of carbon storage
Trees often create a sense of calm and peace. Timber buildings also deliver these feelings
The soil around established trees provides fertile ground for more wildlife to flourish
As a tree grows older, it contributes more to its surroundings
To understand wood and to use it effectively, we need to learn about its origins
Old trees are valuable as habitats, even as their absorption of carbon dioxide reduces

In his article “Trees are complex” Mark Chester MICFor looks at some of the amazingly complex interactions within and between trees.

I walk my dog in the forest behind my house most days. The combination of the fresh air, headspace and simply being amongst the trees makes me feel joyful (until I spot my dog running off in the wrong direction at least).

On gloriously sunny days the trees create dappled patterns on the paths in front of me or shelter me from the heat of the summer sun. On rainy walks the forest feels atmospheric and beautiful, holding raindrops in its canopy. But the purpose of trees is so much greater than creating a scenic backdrop for my dog walk.

This year, I resolved to connect with nature more whilst I’m out on my walks, and to pay attention to the environment around me. However, it wasn’t until I read an article by Chartered Arboriculturist and Fellow of the Arboricultural Association, Mark Chester, that described the complexity of trees, that I began to think about the way these glorious species really operate and their impact on the world.

We know there are many health and ecological benefits that come from planting trees. For example, their ability to absorb carbon dioxide makes planting them a popular solution to the climate crisis, and the shelter they provide offers fantastic new homes for insects and wildlife. Work like Mark’s helps us to take better understand what amazing resources they are and to get the best from them and for them. Mark explores the science of how trees communicate and describes action plans to aid conservation.

Mark Chester has been working with trees since 1993, acquiring Certified Arborist status in 1999. He has always had a passion for understanding the function of trees, constantly working on projects and being involved in tree development sites, Tree Preservation Orders, and even running the Consulting Arborist Society between 2009 and 2020. Today he edits The World of Trees, and runs a consultancy service, Tree Consultants.

In his article “Trees are complex” for the Royal Forestry Society, Mark Chester MICFor looks at some of the amazingly complex interactions within and between trees, which are beginning to give us a new understanding of tree health and how best to plant and manage our trees for the future.

We grateful to Mark for giving us permission to share his fascinating insights in the piece below, and hope it opens the door to the “behind-the-scenes” of your forest walks!

“As a tree matures, it becomes an attractive habitat for birds, insects, and fungi, keen to make a home and to access the resources within.”

Mark Chester

Trees are complex

The ability of trees to absorb carbon dioxide is well known. During the 2019 general election, the benefits of planting trees for this purpose was appreciated and pledges were made to plant tens of millions of trees in this decade. However, trees contribute far more than this, and indeed, can be truly complex organisms.

A young, vigorous, and rapidly growing tree can absorb large quantities of carbon dioxide. As it grows, it can contribute so much more. Trees in urban settings can help to reduce air pollution, interrupt the development of wind tunnels caused by tall buildings and bring nature into an often concrete landscape. Being around trees is good for both mental and physical health, reducing stress and aiding recovery from illness.

Shade is valued in the heat of summer and evapotranspiration aids cooling.  As a tree matures, it becomes an attractive habitat for birds, insects, and fungi, keen to make a home and to access the resources within. Indeed, as a tree ages it often becomes more valuable as a habitat, an ecosystem, even as absorption of carbon dioxide reduces. Veteran trees can provide unique conditions and host rare species of fauna and flora, and the presence of dead wood is a highly sought resource in the natural world.  Like a village elder, no longer bringing in a wage but making an invaluable contribution to life.

Response to pathogens (any organism that can produce disease) can be complex

Trees such as birch and ash are short-lived, and their focus is on growing quickly and setting abundant seeds. Their defence against pathogens is limited. Longer living trees such as London plane, Oak and Yew invest in their defences. Chemicals such as toxins are stored within to enable resistance to pathogens. Indeed, there are fungi that can only attack when the host is stressed, and a tree surgeon can use this to detect health issues.

Now we are beginning to appreciate how dynamic the internal mechanisms of a tree are.  A beech tree can detect a caterpillar attacking a single leaf and release a toxin in all its leaves in seconds to deter further attacks.

As an Arborist, most of my skills are based on observing the external condition of a tree. However, by measuring the response of a leaf to exposure to sunlight (chlorophyll fluorescence), stress from drought or herbicides can be detected sometimes several weeks before it is externally evident!

The interactions between generations can be truly fascinating.  As seeds develop on the parent of some trees (my own research involved elms), they receive sunlight.  If the sunlight passes through leaves enroute, it changes across the spectrum to ultra-violet and the seed is unable to germinate until it is in an unshaded place and the position on the spectrum is reversed. This helps to ensure that germination won’t happen on a crowded woodland floor where other plants will compete for light.

“Trees in urban settings can help to reduce air pollution, interrupt the development of wind tunnels caused by tall buildings and bring nature into an often concrete landscape.”

Mark Chester

Beech trees release a chemical from the roots to prevent vegetation growing around the base, so that there is no competition from seedlings. By contrast, trees such as pines release chemicals to encourage rooting of seedlings around them providing a nursery, as it were.

Ted Green, conservation advisor to the Windsor estate and someone who has lived in the shadow of Windsor Great Park all his life, shared with me how when younger, he watched forestry workings planting pine seedlings amongst mature pines, leaving them there for a couple of years. His research led him to conclude that mycorrhizae, (the associations between roots and fungi), among the roots of the mature pines were stimulating growth of the seedlings. He took several pine saplings from this ‘nursery’ and planted them in a spot at Windsor. For contrast, he then planted several pine saplings from a conventional source. Ten years later, the local pines are thriving, and those from the conventional source are still adjusting.

We are beginning to appreciate the relationship between trees and soil, and how well aerated soil is important to tree health. I pondered this during the recent floods. In my adopted Herefordshire, fields of pasture with trees were sodden and puddling, the trees intercepting rain fall and slowing the drainage process. However, fields with arable crops and few trees were very different. The plants that had germinated were very isolated in a swamp of cold mud. The sodden surface could take no more water and it was pouring off fields and on to the roads.

Where trees can become established, the soil benefits and a dynamism becomes established that we are only just beginning to appreciate. Aerated soil can host fauna and flora which finds compacted ground inhospitable.

About ten years ago a veteran tree in Wales, potentially more than 1000 years old, was blown over in a storm. The loss was avoidable. A quick-thinking, local arborist took cuttings from the old giant and sent them to several people he knew could propagate them. One was Peter Wells, founder of Barcham Trees and a nurseryman with half a century of experience. He watched as his cuttings became established, and some cuttings produced more than a metre of new growth in the first year (ten times greater than expected). He is still pondering how. What is it in the genetics of this veteran that enabled such vigour? And can we introduce it to today’s trees? Current research is focusing on tolerance to drought and waterlogging, so that the trees being propagated today are equipped for the harsh urban conditions of tomorrow.

Trees are truly complex. Viewing them simply as a source of carbon storage is to miss so much, observing in monochrome when colour is available. There is so much to know and understand. The good news is that we appreciate this and we are gradually exploring more.

Thank you again to Mark Chester for his willingness to share his article, and we hope that you found it inspiring and informative. If you are interested in finding out more about Mark’s work, you can visit his website here, or follow him on LinkedIn and Twitter.

You can also learn more about woodlands and forests through the Royal Forestry Society , whose projects, resources and events aim to share knowledge on the art and science of woodland management. Their social media platforms are listed below:

Royal Forestry Society YouTube
Royal Forestry Society Twitter
Royal Forestry Society Instagram

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