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Trunk of tricks

Tamsin Walker
April 12, 2018

Trees don't only combat climate change, prevent soil erosion, serve as shelter, provide oxygen and food, some are even equipped to deal with the consequences of drought and fire.

South Africa: eucalyptus
Image: picture-alliance/blickwinkel/J. Hauke

While humans and animals stand some chance of moving out of the path of an encroaching fire, the story for plants and trees is an altogether more inert affair. Bound to the ground by the roots that feed them, they have no choice but to stand still and wait for the flames to have their heated way.

But some trees, though scorched, charred and perhaps on first glance, given up for dead, have found a way to adapt to the infernos that form part of the pattern of life in their parts. Most notably several types of Eucalyptus.

Read more:Nature's winged arsonists

Indigenous to Australia, which is well known for its roaring bush blazes, many of the tree's species have developed an unusual feature known as a lignotuber. These organs, which can measure several centimeters in diameter, are large outgrowths that surround the base of the trunk either underground or at soil level.

A small burned stump sprouting fresh green foliage
Shoots of green among the charred trunksImage: Getty Images/L. Dawson

Essentially storehouses of dormant buds and vascular tissue, if the top of the tree whose base they encircle is destroyed by a fire or drought, lignotubers come into their own, vigorously promoting the growth of new shoots, thereby keeping the tree alive.

Read more:In the eye of the firestorm: Surviving Australia's most extreme bushfire

As if that were not smart enough, in order to channel as much available energy as possible into the regeneration project, some trees shed large parts of their old root system, only maintaining those parts needed to anchor the deminished yet revived plant to the ground.