Imagine standing naked outside on a cold winter day. When winter’s chill comes, people take shelter. If we have to be out, we put on more clothing. Most animals have fur or feathers to help keep them warm, and they also seek shelter from the cold. Trees in winter can only stand there and take it for months at a time. So how do trees prepare for winter?
Living cells in plants or animals consist primarily of water inside a membrane. If you leave a bottle of water in your car on a night when the temperature drops below freezing, you know it will freeze and break the bottle. That is because water has the unique property of expanding as it freezes. The same thing can happen in living cells. If the water in the cell freezes, it will expand and rupture the membrane. Animals that are endothermic (warm-blooded) generate heat within their cells by burning sugar to produce energy. Plants make sugar using light energy. With a few exceptions, they don’t produce heat.
How do trees prepare for winter? They use a process botanists refer to as “hardening.” The cell walls become more permeable to allow water to escape. At the same time, sugars, proteins, and acids in the cell are concentrated into a syrupy liquid, which acts as an antifreeze. The spaces between the cell walls become filled with ultra-pure water filtered through the cell walls. Pure water without stray atoms to form a nucleus around which ice crystals can grow, will freeze only at a much lower temperature. With the cells filled with antifreeze and spaces between having only ultra-pure water that can be super-cooled without freezing, the tree is ready for what the winter brings.
How does the tree know that it’s time to harden for winter? Fall weather can fluctuate quickly and dramatically. A tree can’t depend on the fickle weather because it could easily be fooled by warm days that suddenly turn cold, causing it to freeze to death. Trees know when to prepare for winter because of the length of the days – the “photoperiod.” Weather is unpredictable. The Sun is absolutely dependable. When the tree senses a decrease in light in each 24-hour cycle, it knows winter is coming, even if the weather is unusually warm. The pattern of changing daylight and darkness is exactly the same every year, even though the weather is capricious.
God engineered this incredibly well-designed system. “Then God said, ‘Let there be lights in the expanse of the sky to separate the day from the night. They will serve as signs for seasons and for days and for years’” (Genesis 1:14). Thus God designed the system which says, “Trees prepare for winter.” It’s another engineering marvel from the Creator.
When you walk into the forest and look up at the trees, it’s easy to realize that all of those structures towering over your head are alive. What you may not think about is that their seeds under your feet are alive also.
Many trees produce seeds to grow new trees. There are maple seeds with their familiar “helicopter” method of blowing in the wind. There are cottonwood seeds that look like “summer snow.” Those seeds and others are carried far away by the wind.
Oak trees produce seeds we call acorns. They’re too heavy for the wind to scatter them, so that’s the job of squirrels. Squirrels gather acorns and store them to eat later. When later comes, the squirrels have often forgotten where they stored their treasure. Instead of being eaten, the acorns grow into new trees to produce more acorns. Both the trees and the squirrels benefit from that arrangement.
The seed of a coconut tree is the coconut. The wind can’t blow coconuts around, and squirrels can’t carry them. They often grow near water, such as a stream or an ocean. A coconut falling into the sea can float to an island thousands of miles away, where it can take root and grow. Cherry trees produce their fruit with a seed we often call a pit. Birds eat the cherries and drop the seeds over a wide area.
The key to a seed beginning to grow is the breaking of the shell surrounding it. Many things can cause that to happen, such as moisture, temperature, fire, mechanical abrasion, or a combination of methods. Some seeds have to travel through the digestive system of birds or animals for them to begin to grow into a new plant.
Most seeds wait a year before they start to grow. Cherry seeds can wait for hundreds of years. Scientists discovered a lotus seed (Nelumbo nucifer) in a bog in China. They cracked the shell and started it growing. When they carbon-dated the shell, they found that the seed had been waiting for 2,000 years to sprout into a lotus plant.
We take for granted many things that God has built into the Earth so that we can survive. Among those are trees. World Ark magazine for the spring of 2019 published some interesting data that demonstrate the benefits of trees:
One acre of forest absorbs six tons of carbon dioxide in a year. That is enough to meet the annual needs of 18 people.
One acre of forest produces six tons of oxygen a year. That is also enough to meet the annual needs of 18 people.
A single average-sized tree produces 260 pounds of oxygen a year, which is enough for two people.
Large areas of asphalt or cement attract and retain the Sun’s heat artificially boosting local temperatures. Trees are the only cure for this overheating.
Trees are the most efficient way to reduce urban noise.
Planting a tree on the west side of your house can block enough of the Sun’s heat to save $25 on your air conditioning bill every year. Trees also serve as natural windbreakers to reduce your heating bill in winter.
Some trees, such as apple trees, attract birds which eat invasive caterpillars.
Property values are increased up to 15% by having trees in yards and throughout neighborhoods.
Joyce Kilmer wrote, “I think I shall never see, a poem as lovely as a tree.” That is even more true when we realize the multiple hidden benefits of trees.
“And the earth brought forth grass, and herb yielding seed after his kind, and the tree yielding fruit whose seed was in itself after its kind: and God saw that it was good” (Genesis 1:12).
A German forester and author named Peter Wohileben has written a book titled The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate. The book has sold more than 800,000 copies in Germany and has hit the best-seller list in 11 other countries including the U.S. and Canada. He was quoted in the March issue of Smithsonian magazine as saying, “We must at least talk about the rights of trees.” Since we are concerned about human rights should we also be thinking of tree rights?
According to the article in Smithsonian, scientific evidence indicates “that trees of the same species are communal, and will often form alliances with trees of other species.” Wohileben says that trees in every forest “are connected to each other through underground fungal networks. Trees share water and nutrients through the networks, and also use them to communicate.” What Wohileben is talking about is a symbiotic relationship between trees and fungi underground. The hair-like root tips of trees join together through fungal filaments to form a mycorrhizal network. The fungi consume sugar from the tree roots as they pull nitrogen, phosphorus, and other minerals from the soil which are absorbed by the roots for use by the trees.
The trees communicate through their “wood-wide-web” by “sending chemical, hormonal and slow-pulsing electrical signals.” The large trees with deep roots draw up water which benefits the shallow-rooted trees. The article says that trees also share nutrients with each other, even between species. In addition to the underground network trees also communicate with each other through the release of chemicals into the air, and they release large amounts of moisture into the air feeding rain systems.
Wohileben presents his story of the trees as if they have intelligence. He says that we must “allow some trees to grow old with dignity, and die a natural death.” Multiple scientists refute Wohileben saying that trees are not “sentient beings” and call Wohileben’s ideas anthropomorphism.
Recently my driveway was covered with Michigan summer snow. The temperature was 92 degrees, and the snow was falling at an alarming rate. I didn’t get out my snow blower, but I did get out my leaf blower.
Michigan summer snowflakes are one-to-two inches in diameter. Contained within each snowflake is a seed. These snowflakes can travel for miles when the wind is blowing because they are carefully engineered so that their density is the same as the air here in Michigan on a hot early summer day. They only stop when they hit an obstruction, but even a dandelion or a tall weed can stop them. The cotton that surrounds the seed is highly soluble in water. As soon as it rains or the sprinkler system comes on, the cotton will dissolve, and the seed will fall to the ground and try to become a new cottonwood tree.
The eastern cottonwood is the state tree in Kansas, Nebraska, and Wyoming. It can grow as much as six feet in one year and can become one of the largest trees in North America. Because they grow so fast, the wood of cottonwood trees is not very strong. But when you have a tree 190 feet tall, there is a great deal you can do with it. The Native Americans made canoes from the trunks of cottonwood trees. They used the bark of the tree as forage for horses, and the sprouts for food and medicinal tea.
Cottonwood trees come in both male and female varieties with different life cycles. The males don’t make seeds. In the spring the female trees have tiny red blossoms. When the females are pollinated by the male trees, they form a spherical cotton ball with a seed inside. The volume of the cotton is exactly enough to give buoyancy to lift the seed off the ground, but not so enough for it to be lost in the atmosphere. The cotton balls with their seeds flow across the landscape in the same way that cold air blows snow in winter. The seeds can be so thick that we can’t see across our street.
It is a wonderful thing to see all the different methods that God designed into trees to allow them to reproduce. Maple trees use tiny helicopters to lower seeds to the ground. Oak trees use acorns to entice squirrels to bury their seeds. Squirrels have enough memory space in their brains to remember where most of the seeds are, but not all of them. Cottonwoods create summer snow.