10 amazing facts about trees you should know
16 October 2020 | Matt Mostyn
There are more than a few things about trees you probably never knew! Check out our 10 favourite amazing facts about one of nature’s greatest gifts.
We’re big fans of trees here at OVO. Not only do they breathe oxygen, protect soil and support wildlife – they’re also carbon-munching powerhouses in the fight against the climate crisis.
Over the next 12 months we’ll be planting around 900,000 trees, in partnership with The Woodland Trust and I Dig Trees – and by the end of Spring 2021, we expect to have planted over 2 million of them. Over a 10-year growth period, a single tree can lock away around 60kg of carbon.
It means that overall, the trees we plant on behalf of our members will absorb around 54,000 tonnes of the stuff. Which is about the equivalent of the carbon footprint created by 49,000 people flying from London to New York!
There’s a lot to love about trees – but there are also a few quite amazing and rather surprising facts about them that you may not know. So here are our 10 favourite fascinating facts about trees, to inspire even more astonishment next time you’re in their stately presence.
1. Trees have only been around for the last 10% of earth’s entire history
The earth may be a staggering 4.5 billion years old – but even early forms of plants (such as mosses and lichens) only sprang up as recently as 470 million years ago. Larger plants followed about 420 million years ago, but it took tens of millions more years for trees taller than 3 feet high to evolve.
2. Some tree species never die of old age
Yes, some species of tree are actually biologically immortal! That’s not to say that they won’t eventually die of other causes – but old age isn’t one of them.
The bristlecone pine is just one example. These North American trees are incredibly old. One, known as Methuselah has been alive for nearly five thousand years in a forest in California. There’s also a 3,600-year-old cypress in Chile, and a sacred fig in Sri Lanka that was planted in the third century B.C!
The Ginkgo biloba tree can also live for thousands of years. It’s been discovered that even when they're 1,000 years old, the immune system of these trees is like that of a 20-year-old.
To stay eternally youthful, trees have a lot of tricks up their sleeve. They’ve evolved a remarkable ability to delay and minimize the effects of ageing by replacing the parts they lose – and they can even build on their own dead tissue. In fact, the trunk of a very old tree might be 95 percent dead – yet on it grows!
3. Some trees don’t have a growth ceiling
Of all the surprising facts about trees, it's perhaps their staggering height that inspires the most awe and wonder. The towering great granddaddy of them all is a redwood species called Hyperion – which is a massive 116 metres high. That’s 20 metres taller than Big Ben!
This coastal redwood is so tall that its top can’t even be seen from the ground. Located in a secret spot in Redwood National Park, California, this is one species that has no actual growth ceiling. Yes, like the Duracell bunny, redwoods just keep on going and going.
In fact, they’ll only stop growing when their highest leaves start dying of thirst. That happens when the atmospheric pressure at such a high altitude stops them moving nutrients and water from the roots all the way up to the leaves. Something to think about next time your ears pop!
4. Trees help each other to ward off predators
Trees look out for each other in ways that could warm the cockles of even the hardest of hearts! For instance, some tree species can release airborne chemical signals to each other to warn them about incoming threats like insects. Their closest neighbours then produce tannins, which make their leaves taste bitter to approaching predators.
Those airborne signals can also work in another way that’s even more impressive. That’s because trees can attract predators or parasites that kill an invading pest. A 2013 study for instance found that apple trees under attack by caterpillars can release chemicals that attract caterpillar-eating birds.
It sounds like a scene straight from the movie Avatar – but it means that a tree under siege can essentially call for back-up from other parts of the natural world if it gets into trouble!
5. Trees have their own special ‘internet’ to communicate
Trees can 'talk' to each other, and they even share nutrients. They manage to do this through an incredible underground system created by soil fungi.
A special mycorrhizal type of fungi lives on the roots of many trees. They help trees to absorb water and nutrients from the soil – but they also work on a much larger scale, like an underground internet, to connect entire forests. Essentially, the fungi help the trees to create a huge, intricately connected platform to both communicate and share resources.
It means that older, larger trees (known as ‘mother trees’) can be connected to hundreds of younger trees around them. They can then send nutrients, water and even whatever carbon they don’t use through the funghi network to smaller seedlings – which can boost seedling survival by as much as 4 times.
6. Trees have a ‘nationality’
Fascinatingly, more than half of all tree species exist only in a single country – almost 58 percent, to be precise. In fact, a recent study found that many naturally occur only within the borders of a single nation – with Brazil, Colombia and Indonesia having the highest totals for native tree species.
There are currently around 60,000 species of trees in the world – and of those, about 300 are critically endangered, with fewer than 50 individuals left in the wild.
Knowing that many species are only found in one country gives us another big reason to protect them – because it means individual species are even more vulnerable to potential threats than we thought (such as deforestation from extreme weather or human activity).
7. A tree’s leaves hide some colourful secrets
Leaves aren’t just green – even if they appear that way for most of the year. In fact, leaves are naturally red, yellow, orange, purple and green. It’s just that a chemical called chlorophyll (which makes leaves green) tends to dominate until leaves get less sunshine. When that happens, chlorophyll isn't produced as much, making the green colour fade, and allowing the other colours to be revealed. That process is helped by lots of dry weather and sunlight, which help make more sugars in the leaves, to turn them a brighter red.
If you’re someone who looks forward to Autumn foliage every year, it’s another reason to do your bit to help stop climate change. Scientists believe that global warming could potentially make Autumn foliage a thing of the past. That’s because if temperatures remain too warm, it can stop a tree’s leaves from revealing the full beauty of their natural colours.
8. Trees release chemicals that can make us happier
It’s been proven that just looking at trees can make us feel happier, less stressed and more creative. That’s partly because they release chemicals called phytoncides. Research has shown that when we breathe them in, it can have amazing effects, reducing blood pressure, lowering anxiety levels and increasing pain threshold – and they can even boost our levels of anti-cancer proteins!
Originating in Japan, forest bathing (also called Shinrin-yoku) is becoming hugely popular. This is a practice that involves doing mindful walks in forests, to soak up the relaxing vibes. It’s thought that doing something as simple as immersing yourself in the calming atmosphere of a forest can have major benefits for mental wellbeing.
Find out more about the practice of forest bathing, and its incredible impact on our physical and mental health. Plus, to mark World Mental Health Day, we’ve also created a relaxing virtual forest bathing meditation video with Sounds of the Forest. This global interactive audio project invites people around the world to record and share the sounds of their local woodland. Check it out!
It's not only trees that make us feel happier. Find out how to create an eco-friendly, sustainable garden and get happy in your own back yard.
9. Trees have been worshipped for centuries
There’s a whole lot of folklore and myth surrounding trees – and all kinds of ancient pagan cultures, including the Celts, believed that kindly spirits lived in trees.
Knocking on tree trunks was thought to awaken the spirit for protection – and this led to the saying ‘knock on wood’, which we still use today!
10. There are 422 times as many trees on earth as people
A study by Yale University researchers has found that there are over 3 trillion trees on Earth – which is 422 times as many as there are people. That figure sounds pretty impressive, until you consider that since the start of human civilization (about 11,700 years ago) the total number of trees on Earth has fallen by around 46%.
Trees are disappearing from our planet at an alarming rate. Sadly, about 15 billion trees are lost each year due to deforestation and changes in land use. Farming, grazing of livestock, mining, and drilling account for more than half of all deforestation – with unsustainable forestry practices, wildfires and urbanisation making up the rest.
Yet there’s hope. A new movement is underway to preserve existing forest ecosystems and restore lost trees. Which is great news when you also consider that adding just one tree to an open pasture can increase its biodiversity from almost zero species to as high as 80.
To find out more amazing facts, check out our blog on 20 fascinating renewable energy facts to inspire you!