It is becoming popular to ascribe human characteristics to plants and the latest headlines say, Scientists Discover That Trees Have A “Heartbeat”. Imagine that, soon trees will be falling in love with each other.
Plants are extremely interesting organisms, but this habit of making them sound animal-like is confusing a lot of people. In a Facebook Group, gardeners started to question the harm we do to trees when we prune them – does it affect their heat? Do they feel pain?
This myth has a very clear beginning and illustrates how many modern day myths get started.
A Myth is Born – Trees have a Heartbeat
The headline; Scientists Discover That Trees Have A “Heartbeat”, appeared on a blog post at Disclose.TV. It was then posted in a number of gardening groups. The key words here are scientist and heartbeat.
If scientists report it – it’s probably true. It is kind of odd that people believe things like this because scientists report it, but when scientists say Roundup does not harm bees many people doubt them, but I am off track.
The existence of a heartbeat implies the presence of a heart, although that is not explicitly stated.
Here is the problem with such headlines – most people never read the article, especially on social media. They only learn what is in the heading.
What Does The Article Say?
The article says, “trees do in fact have a special type of beat within them which resembles that of a heartbeat.”
So now it is actually just a beat, not a real heartbeat!
The author could have said that in the title, but then who would read the article and spread it around social media?
The author does go on to embellish the story with, “while the trees were sleeping, they often had a beat pulsating throughout their body, just as humans, and other living creatures do too.”
Do trees sleep? If the beat only existed at night is it really like our body?
The author also claimed, “The pulses which the scientists discovered are actually the tree pumping and distributing water around its body, just as a heart pumps blood.”
What Did The Scientists Say?
The research study looked at the movement of the canopy of small potted trees in a greenhouse. They did not look at the large mature trees pictured in the article, and they did not measure any kind of beat pulsating through their body!
The study never mentions the word, heartbeat! That is an invention of the author writing the article.
The movements measured were quite small and the research authors even say, “In several species we detected 2–4 h cycles of minor crown movement of 0.5–1 cm, which is close to the limit of our measurement accuracy.” A couple of trees had more significant movement, at 2 cm and 5 cm.
In reading the paper it is not clear to me, what if anything significant is being measured, nor do I understand the impact of the unnatural environment of the greenhouse, but lets accept the results. This is not the first time such movement has been reported.
Tree branches have small movements at night. That is a far cry from having a heartbeat.
What did the study say about the beat being caused by “the tree pumping and distributing water”? The study says, “the most daunting challenge is to explain the short-term cycles of movement. This can be done by using non-invasive methods to measure oscillations in water potential. The question is whether these are sufficiently sensitive to measure relatively small differences within a short time span.” The study does not explain the cause for the movement, and it did not attempt to measure water movement. This comment is found in the section, Future Outlook – something that could be further studied.
Scientists Get Blamed
One of the consequences of this kind of reporting is that the general public is misinformed about what the scientist said. If in the future, it is determined that trees don’t actually move in any kind of rhythm, the public will conclude scientists can’t be trusted.
In this case the scientists were quite clear about what they found and what it means. It is media that has misrepresented the facts, but science will get the blame.
Read Past the Headlines
Many modern day gardening myths are started by false headlines. It is critical people read past them, and then go an look at the study. I know…… it takes too much time and won’t happen but if you don’t at least read the article, don’t get conned by the headlines.
In this case, I think it is quite simple. Trees don’t have a heart, so they can’t have a heartbeat and the scientists in this study never made such a claim.