Peter Wohlleben’s “The Hidden Life of Trees”

Until recently I was quite sure that a broad difference between animals and plants was that animals, because they are mobile, readily interact with each other (flocking, pursuing, etc.) while plants, anchored to the ground, don’t do so because they can’t. Except to attract insect pollinators, plants, I thought, live a life of exquisite solo struggle, seeking only the sun and water.

I’ve been steadily learning how far off I was. German forester Peter Wohlleben’s popular book, The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate, is the most compelling lesson yet.

Among his many descriptions of communication and mutual assistance is Wohlleben’s account of how trees defend not only themselves but also each other. Observers have noted, for example, that umbrella thorn acacias in the African savannah pumped toxins into their leaves when they felt giraffes nibbling on them. “The giraffes got the message and moved on to other trees in the vicinity. But did they move on to trees close by? No, for the time being, they walked right by a few trees and resumed their meal only when they had moved about 100 yards away.” They passed by the nearest trees because the trees being nibbled, in addition to pumping a repellent, “gave off a warning gas that signaled to neighboring trees that a crisis was at hand.” The giraffes knew these trees would not taste any better and kept walking.

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Many trees also have the ability to call in the air force. Reacting to bites from hostile insects, such trees emit scents that attract predators that devour the pests. “For example, elms and pines call on small parasite wasps that lay their eggs inside leaf-eating caterpillars.” The growing larvae devour the caterpillars from the inside.

The book brims with information and appreciations of this kind. Three more examples:

  • Trees that spend their lives in the forest fare much better than trees raised in one place and then transplanted to the forest. “Because their roots are irreparably damaged,…they seem almost incapable of networking with one another.” Like “street kids,” they “behave like loners and suffer from their isolation.”
  • Time for trees is slow and long. Internally, they, like animals, send alerts to parts of their body via chemicals and electrical impulses. But in a tree the electrical impulses move only about a third of an inch per second. (In our bodies, pain signals move  through our nerves about two feet per second, muscle impulses a hundred times faster.) No wonder it seems to us that plants are unresponsive.
  • Conifers (evergreens) “keep all their green finery on their branches” throughout the winter and have been doing so for 270 million years. Then deciduous (leaf-bearing) trees came along 100 million years ago, growing and discarding annually millions of delicate green solar panels. Was this an improvement? Why go to all that trouble? Wohlleben asks. Because “By discarding their leaves, they avoid a critical force—winter storms.” Between high winds, muddy soil, and a surface area equivalent to that of a large sailboat, tall evergreens take a battering in European winters. Growing and then dropping their huge surface area every year proved well worth while for the leafy new comers.

Wohlleben’s liberal use of human descriptors to explain the actions of trees delights many readers and annoys others. Andrea Wulf, in her review of the book, has both reactions.

I’m usually not keen on anthropomorphizing nature—and here trees are “nursing their babies” and having “a long, leisurely breakfast in the sun” while…fungus mushrooms are “rascals” who steal sugar and nutrients. These cutesy expressions make me cringe….But I have to admit that Wohlleben pulls it off—most of the time—because he sticks with scientific research and has a knack for making complex biology simple and thoroughly enjoyable.

I agree. While the vocabulary may bestow on trees a dignity and affection that we usually reserve for our own kind, it is scientists’ growing understanding of trees that creates the real story here. At a time of rapid environmental change, the book is as fascinating a revelation as one could ask for that life is even more intricate and purposeful than we knew.

6 thoughts on “Peter Wohlleben’s “The Hidden Life of Trees”

  1. I have really enjoyed reading your blog, always interested in trees and how the earth has such entwined wonderful connections to all living beings.


  2. Two thoughts:
    1- myrnajsmith, make sure you’re not confusing Wohlleben’s book with the thoroughly discredited and debunked “The Secret Life of Plants” published in 1973 by Peter Tompkins.

    2- regarding the last few paragraphs of the post: as we learn ever more about our kinship with every living thing, I think we should be questioning the ubiquitous anthropomorphism of humans! Is our care of offspring so categorically different from that of trees? I don’t think current science supports an affirmative answer to that.
    If we have “free will” (controversial at best) why are we so quick to assert that other living things don’t? I think it’s cultural baggage from Christian theology, which is obliged to maintain an artificially-bright boundary between people and the Garden itself. Of course, most of us would rather not be reminded of our kinship with the stuff on our plates.


    • JD, thanks for the alert about Tompkins book. Lots of exposés about plant Lives! There is also Attenborough’s excellent Private Life of Plants.

      I follow you on the anthropomorphizing business. I think an aspect of the issue is that the language in which that occurs is our–that is to say, human–language. We have our words that distinguish, and therefore separate, one entity from another, so we’re are prone to “ranking” them, I think. In tree language or, say, bird language, it would be interesting to know how they (would/might) refer to each other and to us. This in addition to the Christian element and the dualism inherited from Zoroastrianism.

      FYI, there is a great but long sci-fi story by Ursula Le Guin from about 1970 called Vaster Than Empires and More Slow. A scout ship lands on a planet that is apparently all trees and plants with no animals. As they explore, the crew pick up gradually stronger feelings of fear from the trees and being threatened. It turns out that the trees, interconnected at the roots, had never experienced mobile creatures before. I’ll bet Wohlleben has read it.


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