Are Some Tree Species More Intelligent Than Others?

Along Hampshire Street here in Quincy there are several magnificent European Linden trees (Tilia cordata, or Little-leaf Linden). Such an appealing species, with their heart-shaped leaves and small round pendant seeds, each one shaded by an oval bract. These trees seem to know that growing too close to a power-line will result in chain-saw butchery by the electric company crews. The trunks lean away from the lines, grow above them, then lean back. Are they perhaps sensitive to electromagnetic fields? Perhaps I’m being too anthropomorphic, but this seems like some sort of vegetable intelligence.

Here is a photo of the particularly massive base of one of these lindens. The tree is probably about eighty years old.

This is a photo of another very tall linden which cannily avoided the power lines:

I’ve long been puzzled that our native linden,Tilia americana, is seldom planted as a street or yard tree on this continent.

They are most often known as basswood trees; the locals call them “Linn” trees. It’s a beautiful and fast-growing tree with larger leaves than those of the European species. Years ago, back when our kids were young, I would venture down into the bottomland woods during the winter with a five-gallon bucket and a shovel. I remember six-year-old Adrian, our daughter, accompanying me on one of these jaunts. The little basswood saplings were easy to identify: the terminal buds are bright red and can be seen from a distance.

Over the course of a few years I transplanted about eight of the saplings. The last time I saw them they averaged about sixteen inches in diameter. Wistfully, I wonder how they are doing these days.

An aside: If you ever happen to be around one of the Tilia species, one which is young enough that it has branches not far above your head, and it’s the middle of May, you will be treated to one of the most delicious odours to come from any tree flower, rivalled only by the odour of the blossoms of the native wild apple. Bees like flowering Tilias; the whole tree will be abuzz. The bees won’t sting you, as they are too busy!

At the other end of the tree “intelligence” scale are the moronic soft or silver maples. The species has a tendency to grow out limbs right over a house’s roof. The wood is brittle and branches will snap off and destroy a roof if chain-saw surgery isn’t done as a preventive measure. There are two miserably contorted specimens right out in front of my apartment house. I can imagine their dim thoughts as they grew towards the power lines:

“Duh — they’re just wires! Let’s just engulf those wires — what could possibly go wrong?” What eventually went wrong was that the power company chain-saw crew came along and butchered those poor feckless trees. Now they are the tree equivalent of cripples. I wish someone would cut them down and plant lindens in their place!




Filed under Natural History, Photos

9 responses to “Are Some Tree Species More Intelligent Than Others?

  1. Joan

    We have a Linden tree right next door!. It’s planted smack dab in the middle of my young neighbor’s back lawn. A gift (along with shrubs) from her grandmother right after she moved in.
    I had never heard of a Linden tree before. This one is rather petite, and I assumed, quite wrongly, that it would not grow very large in future . After all, grass is the big thing in our neighborhood, and it does shade the Zoysia. Well, surprise! Who knew this nubile young thing would one day grow to such a prominent (but evidently strangely agile and intelligent ) elder statesman.
    Now I had a red maple planted in our gangway a few years back. I’m hoping it’s not as dumb as those moronic silver maples. I have not heard it say ‘duh’ yet, so I’m hopeful.’s still quite elfin after about 10 years, .
    Thanks, Larry! Such fun to take a tour of Quincy’s trees and I very much enjoyed your tale of bass(wood) fishing and transplanting with your daughter.

  2. I’ll bet that your red maple is one of those “Autumn Blaze” cloned hybrids. They are tissue-cultured hybrids of the silver and red maple species. I think that the variety was one of the first trees ever produced via tissue culture. Every Autumn Blaze is an exact genetic replica of a mother tree; I wonder if the mother tree is still alive, and I wonder where it is located.

    The variety is well-behaved and has the most charming fall leaf color — sort of a grayish-rose with a paler underside. I first saw one about thirty years ago and bought two saplings from a nurseryman friend. They are quite large now!

  3. Joan

    Gosh! That sounds like cloning! Is it? Somewhere the mother tree may be still alive donating bark slivers with her very own genome. How cool is that!
    I’ll have to thread through my pics and see if it has that type of color in the fall. Problem is, I have a tendency to goose up my color contrasts with Picasa for dramatic it might not be it’s true color.

    Thanks! I’ll ask the guys who plant trees if they know. They are currently intent upon felling as many bad sweetgums as they can, and replacing them with something that doesn’t keep on dropping garbage prickly fruit year round. I’m for that!

  4. Virginia

    Yesterday a stately ash near the end of our driveway “decided” to toss a living 5-inch diameter limb on the ground. The air was completely still and HOT in Kansas City. While watering the garden in the back yard, I heard a crash in the front. What a surprise to see a 20 foot long limb leaning against the tree. The tree and limb are healthy except for the torn place where the limb was formerly attached. Now you have me wondering if the tree decided it couldn’t stand the heat reflecting off the driveway to the overhanging limb and decided to sacrifice it. Is this an example of an intelligent Ash? Or was it a rash move, soon regretted?

  5. The ash makes an inventory of its various limbs.
    “Hmm — that limb hanging over the driveway was weakened by the recent storms. It’s doomed; might as well shed it now and get it over with!”

  6. Claire

    I’m also a huge fan of Lindens. I have a “June Bride” in my front yard. (Larry, I don’t think you’ve been to my house on Line st.. have you?) June Brides are shorter and seem to branch lower than the they appear wider. They also have many many more flowers. Did you mention that sweet almost honeysuckle fragrance in the spring?)

  7. I think I was at your house in town once several years ago, Claire, unless you’ve moved since then. As I recall you were renting a portion of it to someone.

    I did mention the luscious linden-flower odour in an aside in the above post.

    Good to hear from you, Claire!

  8. Dave

    Larry, I’m sure you remember the Linden I planted alongside the driveway of our house on Rogers Court. I had forgotten about the scent and the little bees. I think the people we sold to took it out, partly I suppose because it was planted too close to the edge of the driveway.


  9. I remember the day you planted that tree and the pesky sweetgum as well. Remember how Mom would get Tyler and Adrian to pick up the prickly balls when they were kids?

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