Listening for the trees

They say that trees can speak to each other in a language we humans are too busy to hear and too self-absorbed to understand. Peter Wohlleben, a German forester who wrote the now famous book, The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate, has learned that trees in a forest actually live as a community. They maintain interdependent relationships and share water and nutrients through underground fungal networks. They send distress signals about drought and disease through chemical, hormonal and slow-pulsing electrical signals, and can also communicate through the air by releasing pheromones and other scents.

Tane Mahuta “Lord of the Forest” is the largest living kauri tree in New Zealand. Between 1840 and 1900, 90% of the kauri were logged. Today, only 4% of the original kauri forest remains in small patches.

While traveling in New Zealand two years ago, my family and I visited the largest living kauri tree, a 2000-year old giant known locally as Tane Mahuta – Lord of the Forest. Over the 2000 years that Tane Mahuta has grown ever so slowly from a tiny seed into a behemoth tree 169 feet tall, the world has watched the rise of Christianity; the fall of the Roman Empire; western colonization of the Americas, Australia, and dozens of other regions in the world; the industrial revolution; two world wars; and countless other changes. Does Tane Mahuta sense the enormity of change that has happened in its lifetime? Did it feel a mounting sense of loss as its community of kauri were slowly downed for timber? Every year, the chatter in the forest grows a little bit softer.

I wonder too about the solitary trees planted in city yards and rolling farm fields. Do they feel the same loneliness of modern society that plagues so many of us? Do they long for a community of their own, with which to share signals and sustenance? Maybe the tree in your yard could use a couple of friends.oct25 018

Last month, the Washington Conservation District began its 41st annual tree sale. Through this program, landowners around the county have planted nearly 800,000 trees to create windbreaks for farm fields, stabilize ravines, shade homes, and provide habitat for birds and wildlife.  In addition to its annual tree sale, the Conservation District offers advice and assistance to landowners through free site visits and guidance on planting and habitat projects.

Trees provide a host of services to us humans. They provide oxygen for us to breathe and intercept carbon dioxide and other gasses that would otherwise be released to the atmosphere. It takes 22 trees to deliver enough oxygen for one person to survive. The canopy of a mature tree can intercept 1600 gallons of water per year, helping to reduce stormwater runoff.  Trees also afford food and shelter for migratory songbirds, pheasants, deer, and even pollinating insects.

An eastern kingbird sings from the top of a tamarack tree.

Bur oak, white oak, black cherry, white pine, chokecherry, and American plum are all trees that provide good habitat and food sources for birds. The oaks attract more than 500 species of larval insects, which are a critical source of protein for birds during the summer. American plum, black cherry, and chokecherry all have beautiful blooms during the spring, while chokecherry is a good choice for replanting after buckthorn removal.

The Washington Conservation District is currently taking orders for its spring tree sale. Trees are available in bundles of 25 for $35 (bare-root seedlings). There is also a bird-packet for $55 that contains five each of White Pine, Bur Oak, White Oak, Black Cherry, Common Chokecherry, and American Plum, as well as an evergreen packet for $45 that contains five each of White Spruce, Norway Spruce, White Pine, Red Pine, and White Cedar. Order now and pick-up your trees at the Washington County Fairgrounds, April 26-27, 2019.

WCD tree sale
Every year, the Washington Conservation District sells 15,000-20,000 trees to local landowners for conservation plantings.

They say that trees can talk, and I wonder what the ones in my backyard are saying. Do they notice how the neighborhood has changed over time? Have they watched families come and go from the house that was white, then yellow, and now green? Did they murmur a nod of approval when I brushed aside the dry brown leaves and planted fern and bloodroot at their feet? Undoubtedly they’re talking, if only I’d be quiet and listen.


To place a tree order, go to Find additional tree info at

Visit the MN DNR website to find a list of coniferous and deciduous trees native to Minnesota:

Go to to get resources for woodland management and sign-up for a monthly e-newsletter on topics such as oak wilt, emerald ash borer, and timber harvesting.