The front garden of our Greytown home boasts a 100-year-old Californian Redwood tree. I love that tree. Full-bladdered neighbourhood dogs love that tree. We respond to it in similarly visceral ways – although my response is generally a little less steamy.

The tree is an ever-present visual reminder of the miraculous – and poorly understood – arboreal world we humans inhabit.

Recently I read a book about a quirky American journeyman who, after seeing apocalyptic visions of Earth during a near-death experience, sets about cloning the “champion” trees of the world (the largest and longest-living of their species) to create a “living genetic bank” for the benefit of future generations.

The true story is cleverly interwoven with incredible – occasionally mind-blowing – facts, theories and beliefs about how trees serve and support other lifeforms, communicate with each other, and adapt to the various assaults that human beings make on their habitats.

Here are a few of my favourite snippets from the book:

  • Tree roots draw mercury, dioxin, ammonia, oil and gas, nitrates and other toxic wastes out of the soil and water. If you want to repair polluted land or waterways, plant trees. Officially that’s called phytoremediation. Now you know.
  • As well as sucking up carbon dioxide, trees filter many other undesirable substances from the atmosphere, including toxins like benzene, sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and lead.
  • In a 1960s experiment, a polygraph (“lie detector”) was hooked to the leaves of a plant. When a leaf was harmed – and even when harmful intent was displayed by the researchers – the polygraph displayed a spike in electrical resistance similar to the response of a human who is emotionally distraught when lying.
  • There’s growing scientific support for the theory that trees “feel” in this way – and “see”, “smell”, “taste” and “talk”. A professor of forestry at the University of British Columbia believes trees try to help each other by shuffling carbon and nitrogen back and forth, and by communicating via electrical waves. A researcher set up electrical detection equipment in an Oregon pine forest, then pounded a nail into a tree. The equipment detected a slow-moving wave emanating from the harmed tree that was echoed by adjacent trees – as if a warning signal had been sent and received.
  • The willow tree produces abundant quantities of a chemical called salicin, which is an antibiotic, analgesic, anti-inflammatory and fever-reducer. In 1899, German chemists created an artificial derivative of salicin called acetylsalicylic acid – a bit of a mouthful, so they called it aspirin.
  • Meticulous science has proven that trees have a two-weekly “pulse” which changes the shape of new growth buds in direct relation to the alignment of the Earth, the moon and planets.

Whatever you believe, it’s clear there’s much more to trees than meets the eye. Planting, nurturing and simply admiring them is a naturally rewarding way to spend your day. Okay, and mark your territory on them if you must.