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Climate Change, Trees

The 4 Habits of Highly Successful Trees

So you are a young tree with ambitions for success. From my experience of trees, and in particular tree architecture, the evidence  points to four essentials for success — the key qualities that successful trees share.

Manage Your Water Flow

Your leaves need water. It’s your biological cashflow. If it stops, you are dead.

You probably want to focus on spreading your roots to collect as much as possible, but don’t let that be your only consideration.  The most successful trees also grow their roots and branches so that the distance from root tip to leaf is similar for all the leaves.  This keeps the water pressure as equal as possible across all the leaves.  And don’t forget the leaves themselves – make sure you can open and close the stomata (the holes in the leaves) so that you don’t lose more moisture than is absolutely necessary.

Grow Fast – Maximise Light Interception

Water is vital to stay alive, but you won’t be able to do anything without energy, and you will get virtually all your energy from light (although you might have reserves stashed away to tide you over in dark times, or as a start-up you might have been given some initial chemical energy investment from your parent).

Light is your only income, so you can’t afford not to make the most of it. It all comes from the sun, and it’s a finite resource so be prepared to compete. Every other sapling  around you is also trying to intercept the available light and it’s a zero-sum game (their win is your loss).  Successful trees employ different strategies depending on circumstance, but one strategy is the same for all start-up trees – grow fast!

If you are packed in tight with other saplings, then you need to outgrow them as soon as possible. Compromise on strength if you need to – your neighbours will protect you from wind anyway.

In co-authoring a recent paper with Karl Niklas, I re-discovered a great piece of work by Karl looking at the application of optimisation algorithms to tree architecture. The image above shows the result of optimising a growth model for water conservation, light interception, mechanical stability and seed dispersal. What is fascinating is that there are a number of optimum shapes, and these shapes correspond to the main tree shapes found in nature. This inspired me to write this spoof “habits” blog. (Image from Niklas 2004).

If you are on a savanna you will be surrounded by grasses that will quickly suck all the goodness and water out of the ground when the rainy season comes. And when the rainy season is over, watch out for fire. That grass is going to burn, and they’ll take you down with them if you aren’t tall enough to miss it.  Once you are tall enough to avoid fire and avoid being eaten, then you can start thinking about broadening your canopy.

Don’t Overstretch – Structural Stability

Sometimes, its best to grow fast and tall, but the race for light will often lead you to overstretch.  Growing fast typically means growing weak.

Growth strategy is important. It’s tempting to grow a new branch as long as possible to capture previously inaccessible light, but if it’s too long and thin, it will snap under its own weight. So, grow carefully – and strategically. Optimise your light-interception footprint, but don’t overstretch.


Don’t forget to reproduce.  You live in a Darwinian world. True success is not achieved until you pass on your genes. Any other kind of success is merely temporary. For aerial dispersion of your seed, you want to be as high as possible – the wind is stronger the higher you grow.


Brolly M, Woodhouse IH, Niklas KJ, Hammond ST (2012) A Macroecological Analysis of SERA Derived Forest Heights and Implications for Forest Volume Remote Sensing. PLoS ONE 7(3): e33927. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0033927




  1. Pingback: C’est ne pas un arbre « Forest Planet - September 6, 2012

  2. Pingback: Why One Branch Size Dominates Radar Backscatter « Forest Planet - October 31, 2012

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