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PlaygroundEquipment Blog
Tuesday, May 9, 2017

The Secret Life of Trees

photo by: Shiela in Moonducks (flickr)
photo by Sheila in Moonducks (flickr)
Trees are such basic and common things that we rarely give them a second thought. They are simply part of the landscape; not living things but backdrops and habitats for living things. It’s easy to forget that they are not only alive, but keeping us alive. In this blog post I will be exploring some questions about trees that seem so obvious that most people have probably never thought to ask them.

What is a tree?

This one seems obvious, but before you skip ahead think about it: what qualities do all trees have in common, which they do not share with other plants? If it has to do with their leaves, then what about pine trees? If it has to do with their size, then what about tiny bonsai trees? If it’s about having a trunk with bark, then what does that make palm trees? Merriam Webster defines a tree as “a woody perennial plant having a single usually elongate main stem generally with few or no branches on its lower part,” which seems like an adequate description until you start to ask yourself what makes a tree different than just a really tall bush. Even this broad and unspecific definition is not without exceptions. For example, the plants which bananas grow on are called trees despite having no wood or bark. Surprisingly, there is no comprehensive rules that determine what is and is not a tree. The truth is that ‘tree’ is just a general word that we use to describe a certain shape and style of plants for the sake of convenience.

Where does the size come from?

This is another question that we tend not to think about. Of course trees grow larger over time. They’re plants. That’s basically all plants know how to do, right? But the interesting thing about trees is that they don’t seem to stop growing. They keep getting bigger and bigger until they dwarf even the tallest animals. But where does this mass come from? In the early seventeenth century, a Belgian scientist named Joannes Baptista van Hemholt attempted to answer this question. He planted a five-pound willow sapling in 200 pounds of soil, watered it for five years, then weighed the tree and soil again, to see how much of the soil had been consumed. The tree now weighed 169 pounds, but in that time the soil hardly lost any weight at all. According to the law of conservation of matter, the tree’s extra weight must have come from somewhere besides the soil. Hemholt concluded, incorrectly, that “164 pounds of wood, barks, and roots arose out of water only.” His findings were revolutionary and controversial at the time, but still not as strange as the truth. Trees, like most life on earth, are made mostly from the element carbon. They gather this carbon from carbon dioxide in the air, which is released every time an animal or human exhales. Animals breathe in oxygen and release carbon dioxide, while plants do the opposite. Every time Hemholt breathed around his tree, he was unknowingly feeding it the material it needed to grow. Trees don’t just give us the oxygen that we need to breathe, they are made from our breath.

How do they make air?

Photosynthesis in plants is in many ways the opposite of aerobic respiration (a.k.a ‘breathing’) in animals; it absorbs carbon dioxide and releases oxygen. But the stark difference between these two processes becomes even more evident when their chemical formulas are compared side-by-side. Here is a chemical formula for respiration:

C6H12O6 + 6 O2 → CO2 x+ 6 H2O

In other words, glucose (C6H12O6) and oxygen (O2) recombine to form carbon dioxide (CO2) and water (H2O, of course). Another byproduct which is not shown in the formula is energy, which is released as the glucose molecules break down. This energy is needed for us to power and maintain our bodies. Now let’s look at the chemical formula for photosynthesis:

6 CO2 + 6 H2O → C6H12O6 + 6 O2

As you can see, it’s the opposite of respiration. It turns water and carbon dioxide into glucose, with oxygen as a ‘waste’ product, which is released back into the atmosphere. But since this process is the opposite of respiration, it costs energy instead of producing it. That’s where sunlight comes in. Plants absorb its energy using the chlorophyll in their leaves, and store it in glucose molecules to be used later.

In this way, plants and animals are dependent on each other to survive. The opposite processes of respiration and photosynthesis balance each other out, creating the conditions needed for both to thrive.


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