Diana Beresford-Kroeger: Botanist and Biochemist

“I walk into a forest, any forest, to find the quality of silence. This is nutrition for the soul and is the pathway to self.” Diana Beresford-Kroeger, botanist, medical biochemist, and one of the world’s leading experts on trees, discusses the benefits to human life of a healthy ecosystem and the importance of preserving the heritage of old growth trees.

Photos:  Chris Osler and Faris Ahmed

Photo:  Faris Ahmed 

Photo:  Faris Ahmed 

Q.1. Do you have a favourite childhood memory related to trees?

I played house in the centre of a huge Bay Laurel. I had my dolls and a tiny tin stove. In the spring I used the small yellow-green flower clusters as pretend food. They had a stout feeling in my little fingers. In the fall I searched out the shining jet-black seeds.

One day I found a seed that was producing a snow-white root. This was magic to me. The root grew. I watched it every day as it changed into an evergreen plant. The magnificent Bay Laurel, Laurus noblilis, has gone from my home in Ireland. The magic has not.


Q.2. From your perspective, what is the single most important contribution made by trees that makes them so important?

As a botanist, I know that trees hold first place in the plant kingdom. Their evolution has taken well over 400 million years. They are the most complex organisms on the planet. Their rating can be compared to the great whale or the human species.

However, as a biochemist I know that the trees carry out a scientific reaction in sunlight. It is called the photosynthetic reaction. This reaction is unique in the world of physics and is not understood, even today. Our life depends on this reaction for the oxygen it produces… I breathe…you breathe…


Q.3. What effect does spending time in a forest have on you personally?

I walk into a forest, any forest, to find the quality of silence. This is nutrition for the soul and is the pathway to self. A forest supplies this raw canvas and nature adds the brush strokes of wind, fragrance and form.

Silence is an embryo out of which creation is born for the artist and the scientist. The sacred lives in that place, too.

A forest is the cathedral of the living world and hushed within its hymns the senses awaken. A tree’s roots bulge to corner an apron of trilliums or ferns. The soil underfoot breathes with each footfall to engage the hidden kingdom underneath. Suddenly a scarlet tanager screeches or a wood thrush sighs and the world opens the door to the senses to enter, carefully, carefully! You are on trust…


Q.4. You’ve written that it’s possible for children to come out functioning better if they have had even half an hour of time spent in a pine forest. Why is this?

On a warm, moist summer’s day in North America, stand still, and look into the distance. The crispness has gone out of the horizon and everything looks a bit fuzzy. Aerosols from trees are at work flowing up into the atmosphere from the surface of the leaves. Each aerosol is invisible. But many aerosols combined distort the distance seen by the naked eye.

The pine tree is a North American baby. The tree produces aerosols called pinenes. There are alpha and beta kinds. In fact, there is one style for Europe and another for this continent. These aerosols are molecules that can fly like a kite. They enter your lungs and go into your body; a child’s body runs on a very high gear.

Pinenes improve the functioning of the kid’s brain and protect the body from cancer. One visit holds 30 days’ worth of benefit. Nature’s gifts are invisible…to us.


Q.5. What are some other ways trees provide health benefits for humans?

Every mother, grandmother, sister and aunt who has battled breast cancer has directly benefited from a tree. The Taxaceae family of trees produces a cancer fighting chemical trove called Taxines. These marvelous drugs mean business when they hunt out their prey in the body.

Another demolition crew is found in the Taxodiaceae family of seaside gems called the bald cypress. These evergreens hang out in Florida. They cope with the tide and breathe through a snorkel system called Rhizophores. They make short work of solid cancer tumours.

Another, nearer to home, is the birch tree. This tree carries an acid that takes on the disease of human melanoma. The list goes on. These trees were called Medicinal trees by the First Nations who used them for millennia on this continent. They also carry endogenous medicines. But that is for another day.


Q.6. What is your concept of a bioplan and how would it work in a city like Ottawa?

Planet Earth holds life. This life depends on healthy ecosystems. These systems provide clean air, water and soils. This is true for both urban and rural populations, worldwide. This life support is being destroyed willingly and unwillingly across the world.

A bioplan puts biological systems back in place to benefit a tapestry of all living creatures from man, to the mouse, to the mussel.

Ecology Ottawa holds my table of trees. This is a charter of ten native species whose canopies will function to withstand climate change temperatures and drought. They will comb the city air of 2.5 micron pollution particles which affect cardiovascular function. Some trees will absorb benzene traffic vapours. These can cause cancers. Shade of canopies reduces ultra-violet radiation, which can damage skin and homes.

Trees feed pollinating insects, birds, bats and butterflies. They also teach the lessons of the seasons.

Photo:  Chris Osler 

Photo:  Chris Osler 

Q.7. You have been involved in a project to clone tough, long lived trees. Why is it important to save the genetics from old growth trees?

Old growth trees are the mother trees of the global forests. They represent the strain of virgin trees whose genome has been polished by 460 million years of care. These trees are now exceedingly rare. They are a living library of the planet.

The cellular structure of old growth trees is unique. The genetics and epigenetics will be lost, as will these green machines of medical possibilities. The endogenous fungi that live inside these trees will be gone, too. This is the source material for many of our new antibiotics.


Q.8. On a recent tour in the United States, you noted that you are learning about a growing and profound interest in the natural world and a hunger for nature. Why do you think this is this growing interest?

We are coming full circle. A maturity of the human species is taking place. There is a growing realization that we will have to take a breath and rethink what we are all doing, with the conclusion that the only pathway into the future is a sustainable one. There is enough for everybody. We have to share.

The energy to make sure this paradigm change happens is increasing. This is an exciting time to be alive because out of the margins of society our tree genius will emerge, like the sun breaking through a morning mist. To shine.


Q.9. From your perspective, what is the single most important action people can take to protect trees?

Respect them. And respect them again; they are partners in life.


Q.10. Finally, do you have a favourite among the tree species that are native to eastern Ontario? If so, which one and why?

Yes. The bur oak whose Latin name is Quercus macrocarpa.

The bur oak was logged almost to extinction here in eastern Ontario. All that are left are the retrograde species, in other words, the crooked runts. But, years ago I searched and found the real thing…

The oak is the sacred tree of ancient Ireland, so it is near to my heart. It was also one of the backbone species of the grand Savannah planning of the Aboriginal peoples. It was, and is, an anti-famine tree on this continent.

I admire the bur oak because it is a survivor. This tree has its own cunning. It produces a sunscreen making it able to withstand climate change in the future.

Giant bur oak. Photo:  Chris Osler 

Giant bur oak. Photo:  Chris Osler