Why Plant Trees?

“I am the Lorax.  I speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues.”
~ Dr. Seuss

Belize was first colonized by the British for its coveted logwood (Haematoxylum campechianum), groves of trees that produce a rich red dye historically favored by the British aristocracy.  Many villages in Belize began as logging settlements. So, while clearing bush and noticing many large tree stumps, I was unfortunately not surprised.  Rather than lamenting the loss of so many large, undoubtedly gorgeous trees, I chose to make proverbial lemonade – which, coincidentally, depends on trees – by planting new saplings of the farm’s choosing.  Along the way, I have accumulated enough reasons for planting trees to write a book.  (Perhaps I will!) Behold twelve excellent reasons for planting trees:

Reason #1: Food

Hungry?  Plant a tree!  Trees can produce nuts and fruit, including berries, starchy foods like jackfruit and breadfruit, savory foods like avocado, and meaty foods such as coconut.  Food-producing trees take an average of 4-6 years to mature, but many are prolific bearers once production begins – and for many years to come! Most tree crops are seasonal, so it is important to plant a variety of trees that can (collectively) provide you with food all year ‘round.  In addition, planting several varieties of each species of tree is beneficial because many food-producing trees generate higher yields when in proximity to other varieties of the same tree. Some food-bearing trees, such as almond trees, are self-incompatible – meaning that they can only be pollinated by other (compatible) varieties of almond trees.  The farm has too many different types of food-producing trees to list them all, but about half of them are coconut trees. (I absolutely love coconut water and coconut meat!) Many of the trees came from the seeds of fruits that someone enjoyed eating.

Reason #2: Medicine

Some trees blur the distinction between food and medicine.  Soursop (Annona muricata), a delicious fruit-bearing tree of which we grow plenty, is powerful as an anti-inflammatory agent.  Tea brewed from fresh soursop leaves can reduce uric acid and treat back pain, infections, joint problems and ulcers.  Soursop has even demonstrated a promising ability to treat cancer. The farm also grows moringa (Moringa oleifera) in abundance; this superfood tree is rich in protein, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.  As such, in addition to providing nutrition, moringa can help to prevent heart disease, treat diabetes by lowering blood sugar, reduce inflammation, lower cholesterol, and mitigate the effects of arsenic toxicity.  What else:

  • Neem (Azadirachta indica): The neem tree, with over 130 different biologically active compounds, is a powerhouse of medicine.  Antibacterial, anticarcinogenic, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, antiseptic, antimalarial, anti-microbial, and anti-viral, this tree can treat almost any ailment.  All parts of the neem tree – the leaves, twigs, bark, seeds, roots, fruits, and flowers – have medicinal value. Neem as medicine can be prepared as tea, paste, or oil, or the leaves can be simply eaten raw.  Ayurvedic medicine practitioners swear by neem as a remedy, and we love it too.
  • Noni (Morinda citrifolia): Another fruit-bearing tree (although perhaps not a fruit you would enjoy eating, or even smelling), the noni tree has serious medicinal potential.  Rich in antioxidants, noni can treat arthritis; prevent gout; boost energy levels and your immune system; heal & moisturize skin and relieve scalp irritation; ward off signs of aging; reduce fevers; relieve stress; and reduce the risk of cancer.  It may taste like dry vinegar and smell like soap, but your body loves it anyway.
  • Pine (Pinus): The Caribbean pine tree (Pinus caribaea) grows well in Belize.  One in the front yard, planted as a seedling, is absolutely thriving.  In addition to yielding edible nuts, pollen, and bark (caution: the bark must be boiled first before consuming), pine trees have antiseptic, inflammatory, antioxidant, astringent, and expectorant properties.  Pine needles can be brewed as a tasty tea to treat colds, coughs, congestion, and even scurvy. Prepared as a bath, pine needles can also improve circulation and ease sore muscles. Pine resin treats skin conditions and can draw splinters and other foreign matter, including toxins like snake venom, from the skin.  The bark of the pine tree has antiseptic properties that make it useful for wound care.

Other medicinal trees grow on the farm that were not planted by human hands.  The gumbo limbo tree (Bursera simaruba) and trumpet tree (Cecropia peltata) are two powerfully medicinal trees that grow wild here.  Gumbo limbo trees can effectively treat insect bites and other skin conditions, in addition to remedying gout, backaches, urinary tract and other infections, and fevers.  Trumpet trees are a kind of medicinal cure-all, capable of treating sore throats, warts and corns, herpes, liver disorders, colds, snake and scorpion bites, anxiety, high blood pressure, diabetes, and asthma.

All trees, just by being near them, bolster our immune systems.  Trees release phytoncides – more than 5,000 of them! – which are volatile gasses that help trees to ward off rot and attacks from bacteria, fungi, and insects.  Just by breathing them, phytoncides can increase our levels of white blood cells – a major benefit to human health as well.

Reason #3: Stress Relief

Trees, no matter what kind, are proven to relieve stress, depression, and anxiety.  Residing in the jungle, we don’t need scientific studies to tell us this, but there are plenty that do so anyway.  Looking at trees, or even a tree – or even just an image of a tree! – activates the parasympathetic division of the central nervous system in the brain.  This is the section of your brain that calms breathing, eases blood pressure, slows your pulse, activates digestive juices, enables intestinal motility, and relaxes skeletal muscles.  Looking at trees or walking in a forest also lowers the presence of the stress hormone cortisol. Although a few trees will suffice, a lot of trees is always better. More trees equals less stress and a greater sense of wellbeing.

Reason #4: Fresh Air

Trees perform photosynthesis, which absorbs carbon dioxide and other air pollutants and releases oxygen.  Just one mature tree, in a single year, can absorb 48 pounds of carbon dioxide and release enough oxygen for two people to breathe for the entire year!  All trees absorb the gaseous pollutants ozone, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, and carbon monoxide, but certain varieties of palm tree are especially effective air purifiers.  Lady palms (Rhapis excelsa), date palms (Chrysalidocarpus lutescens), and bamboo palms (Chamaedorea) – all of which grow wild in the tropics – also purify the air of formaldehyde.

Reason #5: Shade

Trees provide shade, which not only makes outdoor spaces more comfortable but also conserves energy.  Just three shade trees strategically planted around a house can reduce the need for indoor air conditioning by up to 58 percent.  In the tropics, shade is needed to fight the “heat island” effect that makes urban environments rather unpleasant. Trees cool the air by providing shade in addition to transpiring water; a single mature tree can produce the same cooling effect as ten room-size air conditioners operating 24 hours per day.  Gumbo limbo trees, in addition to providing medicine, are ideal shade trees. The cut trunks of these trees can regrow as new trees, which makes them an excellent choice for fence posts.

Reason #6: Reforestation

Trees are (fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your perspective) a cash crop.  At the dawn of human civilization, the planet was home to approximately 5.6 trillion trees.  Due to both population growth and deforestation, the world has already lost about 46 percent of its trees, and continues to lose 15 billion more trees every year.  Since trees absorb significant amounts of carbon dioxide, reforestation is crucial for fighting global warming. Although you personally are not likely to replant an entire forest, every tree counts.  The prognosis for climate change is dire, and many recommend reforestation as the solution with the most potential for mitigating climate disaster.

Reason #7: Habitat Creation

Planting trees creates habitat for all kinds of creatures.  Just like with the hummingbirds that arrived in abundance only after planting flowers, planting trees attracts birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and insects, not to mention beneficial fungi and bacteria.  (Conversely, cutting down all of the farm’s trees—*shudder*—would cause the vast majority of forest creatures to quickly vanish.)  Animals collectively utilize every part of the tree for a variety of purposes, including food, shade, building materials, protection, and a place to call home.  And many look simply adorable doing it! Lately I’ve been enjoying nocturnal visits from a nightwalker (kinkajou or Potos flavus) who crawls around in the trees above my cabin.  So irresistibly cute!

Reason #8: Erosion Control

Trees control erosion by reducing wind speeds, slowing floodwaters, retaining soil moisture, and providing structural stabilization for soil.  As massive as many trees grow to be, their root systems grow even larger. Estimates vary, but the roots of most trees grow to more than twice and sometimes up to seven times the diameter of the crown of the tree.  Wow! Closely planted trees may adapt by extending their roots deep rather than wide, while trees planted near bedrock will extend their roots wide rather than deep.  Trees growing in compacted, nutrient-poor soil often grow fewer, thicker roots that extend further afield in search of nutrition, while trees growing in loosely compacted, nutrient-dense soil produce roots that are thinner and shorter but more prolific in number.  Planting trees on steeply sloped surfaces, where erosion control is crucial, is an excellent way to provide the necessary structural support. The farm is blessed with flat, relatively protected land, but planting trees anyway adds and helps soil to retain important nutrients like nitrogen.

Reason #9: Natural Beauty

Trees are beautiful to watch, especially at the first and last lights of day, when even average-looking trees make dark, intricate fractal patterns against the pale sky.  Some trees, like the flamboyant tree (Delonix regia), are simply breathtaking when in full bloom.  Camouflage enthusiasts would be especially fond of macurije trees (Matayba oppositifolia), which have a very interesting camouflage-patterned bark.  I enjoy observing the uniquely complex patterns of vines that grow aggressively along and around the trunks of many trees.  I’ve even found natural wooden “rings” wrapped around tree branches that could be used ceremonially as engagement or wedding rings! Trees may not always be as blatantly stunning as flowers or ornamental plants, but they are frequently beautiful and fascinating nonetheless.

Reason #10: Physical Exercise

Planting trees is a fantastic way to get physical exercise.  Just like with planting flowers, planting trees puts your body in motion and your hands in the dirt.  Gardening burns 200-400 calories per hour depending on your physical condition, and exercises your whole body.  (Understatement of the year! The amount of chopping, raking, clearing, and stump removal that goes into creating space to plant trees in the tropics makes the actual tree planting seem like the easy part.)  Working directly with soil strengthens your immune system in addition to providing myriad other health benefits. Plus, the act of planting trees is much more rewarding and fun than simply sweating it out at the gym.

Reason #11: Property Value Enhancement

Maybe not right away, but trees enhance property values.  Mature trees, well placed, can increase a property’s value by nearly twenty percent, according to several studies conducted across the United States and Canada.  Clemson University researchers in a 1994 study concluded that homeowners typically receive more than a 100-percent return on money invested in tree-planting and landscaping.  Interestingly, flower gardens, planted in the absence of trees, were not found to boost property values to the same effect.

Reason #12: To Pay it Forward

Planting trees is an excellent way of “paying it forward.”  According to an English proverb, “He who plants a tree loves others beside himself.”  If you plant a tree today, you personally may not be present to reap all its benefits in the future.  But the trees you plant now will undoubtedly benefit many others for many years to come, in the same way that you benefit today from the actions of people who planted trees twenty years ago.  Planting trees provides a kind of karmic insurance policy for the continued prosperity of all forms of life.

“The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago.  The second best time is now.”
~ Chinese proverb

I can think of plenty more reasons to plant trees.  They are fun to climb, provide building materials for shelter, create privacy, help to cleanse groundwater, and can repel mosquitoes (thinking of you, neem trees).  But the bottom line is that trees equal life. What we humans do our trees, we ultimately do to ourselves. Plant a tree and you may even save a life.