Trees have sex, socially shun, talk and care for their young, says controversial author

Some scientists hate the idea of a forest as family.
(Credit: iStock/Getty Images, Greystone Books Ltd.)

Waring factions, sexual congress, pain, poison, bathroom talk, smothering maternal love, dark memories, passion and powerful social networks. These are some of the themes explored in a book so controversial, so contentious that it has top thinkers up in arms and might have author, Peter Wohlleben, up a tree — if he gave a sugar maple. If you're expecting an incendiary title, prepare to be underwhelmed. It's called The Hidden Life of Trees. Yup. Still, book sellers can't keep it on the shelves in Germany and it just sold out at the Hay Literary festival in Wales.    

Wohlleben (whose name actually translates to Livewell), is a former state forester from Bonn, Germany with an agenda. He wants people to stop thinking of trees in reductive terms as unfeeling vegetation. He says they're social creatures that communicate, have memories, engage in coitus, care for their offspring and harshly snuff out competing tree species. They can be fiercely territorial. Sure, it's not all shady and machiavellian. Trees also care for their own, especially the old, wounded and fallen. An amputated stump can be kept alive by an underground network of roots indefinitely. Wohlleben sites a 500 year old severed tree base that continues to thrive without benefit of a trunk or leaves, thanks to a little help from its surrounding family.

Although his bestselling book uses touchy-feely language that (quite deliberately) humanizes trees, Wohlleben insists it's all rooted in science. One such study done on African acacia trees reveals that they release a chemical "cry" through the air as soon as soon as giraffes take a bite of their leaves. All trees within reception range of the chemical communiqué start producing a toxin before the giraffe can meander over to take a taste. The science of African acaciae sounding an alarm is legit, and fascinating.    

However true some of his claims may be, the way his talks about trees has infuriated many in the forestry industry and scientific community. Two scientists in particular out of the University of Göttingen set up an official online petition demanding "facts not fairytales". If your German is rusty, it reads: "It is very unfortunate … that, through this book, so many people obtain a very unrealistic understanding of forest ecosystems because the statements made here are a conglomerate of half-truths, biased judgments, and wishful thinking derived from very selective and unrepresentative sources of information." Which of course is scientist speak for "this guy's a few cedars short of a coniferous forest". They pretty much think he's a crackpot. So, ouch.  

Which, according to Wohlleben, is exactly what a tree would say if you cut it's branches or "fingers". Pruning done with good intention is often administered without the requisite know-how even by so-called professionals and trees suffer (literal, not figurative) and eventually die decades later from the rot of resulting infections. Ouch comes up in his book as some of the language trees use. Oak trees, he says, are particularly loquacious using about 600 words when they talk (though he clarifies he means a chemical language). He isn't suggesting they're on FB messenger despite having complex social networks or a "woodwide web". Side note: if I ever get a friend request from a Douglas fir, I'm almost certainly going to accept that request. Trees (except for Birch) are truly social says Wohlleben, they "want to have companions. They want to live in social groups … they support each other." As to the unique anti-social nature of Birch, you'll have to take that up with Wohlleben or buy his book.

As with all social, sentient beings, most trees crave intimacy and earthly delights like sex. A smidge on the prudish side, trees only knock roots every three to five years or so, says Wohlleben. Basic functions like going to the bathroom are more frequent. A forest flush is clocked once a year. "They have stuff they need to get rid of so they pump their waste into their leaves. When you are walking through a forest in winter time you are walking through tree toilet paper." I don't know about you, but the renewed majesty of a snowy wood will forever captivate this old romantic's heart. Also, I'm now worried about the digestive health of evergreens.  

Detractors and snark aside, what's clear is that Wohlleben has a deep love of trees (not as much as that lady who married and made love to one) but he's purposefully anthropomorphized trees with an aim to making people more mindful of plant smarts and the forest community. "My aim is that everyone loves trees and when you love trees you do the right thing." He does his part by overseeing a forest (read family of feelings) in Hümmel that has a zero tolerance for machinery of any kind and writing tell-alls of tree behaviour.     

Surprisingly, Wohlleben has never had a chat with a Blue Spruce (or any other flora) and he's no tree hugger. If you are, that's fine with him and he suggests you "try a beech". Big huggers, beech (who are contrastingly prone to bullying). While he still refers to his firewood as a "burning corpse" he doesn't think we need to stop sitting on wooden stools or "tree bones" as he calls them. There's no remorse needed when buying a butchered tree. "I'm not against using wood otherwise I wouldn't sell any books. But we should think about what we are doing at least.". Huh. Does talking about a hint of hypocrisy absolve you from it? I dunno. I'll ask an Oak.

Marc Beaulieu is a writer, producer and host of the live Q&A show guyQ LIVE @AskMen