How Trees Fight Disease


Plants do not have immune systems like animals. Instead, they have evolved an entirely different way of dealing with infections. In trees, this process is known as the "compartmentalization of decay in trees" or "CODIT." CODIT is a fascinating process and many of us will recognize its physical manifestations.

In order to understand CODIT, one must know a little something about how trees grow. Trees have an amazing ability to generate new cells. However, they do not have the ability to repair damage. Instead, trees respond to disease and injury  by walling it off from their living tissues. This involves three distinct processes. The first of these has to do with minimizing the spread of damage. Trees accomplish this by strengthening the walls between cells. Essentially this begins the process of isolating whatever may be harming the living tissues.

This is done via chemical means. In the living sapwood, it is the result of changes in chemical environment within each cell. In heartwood, enzymatic changes work on the structure of the already deceased cells. Though the process is still poorly understood, these chemical changes are surprisingly similar to the process of tanning leather. Compounds like tannic and gallic acids are created, which protect tissues from further decay. They also result in a discoloration of the surrounding wood. 

The second step in the CODIT process involves the construction of new walls around the damaged area. This is where the real compartmentalization process begins. The cambium layer changes the types of cells it produces around the area so that it blocks that compartment off from the surrounding vascular tissues. These new cells also exhibit highly altered metabolisms so that they begin to produce even more compounds that help resist and hopefully stave off the spread of whatever microbes may be causing the injury. Many of the defects we see in wood products are the result of these changes.


The third response the tree undergoes is to keep growing. New tissues grow around the infected compartment and, if the tree is healthy enough, will outpace further infection. You see, whether its bacteria, fungi, or a virus, microbes need living tissues to survive. By walling off the affected area and pumping it full of compounds that kill living tissues, the tree essentially cuts off the food supply to the disease-causing organism. Only if the tree is weakened will the infection outpace its ability to cope.

Of course, CODIT is not 100% effective. Many a tree falls victim to disease. If a tree is not killed outright, it can face years or even decades of repeated infection. This is why we see wounds on trees like perennial cankers. Even if the tree is able to successfully fight these repeat infections over a series of years, the buildup of scar tissues can effectively girdle the tree if they are severe enough.

CODIT is a well appreciated phenomenon. It has set the foundation for better tree management, especially as it relates to pruning. It is even helping us develop better controls against deadly invasive pathogens. Still, many of the underlying processes involved in this response are poorly understood. This is an area begging for deeper understanding.

Photo Credits: kaydubsthehikingscientist & Alex Shigo

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Say "tree bark" and everyone knows what you're talking about. We learn at an early age that bark is something trees have. But what is bark? What is its purpose and why are there so many different kinds? Indeed, there would seem to be as many different types of bark as there are trees. It can even be used as a diagnostic feature, allowing tree enthusiasts to tease apart what kind of tree they are looking at. Bark is not only fascinating, it serves a serious adaptive purpose as well. To begin to understand bark, we must first look at how it is formed.

To start out, bark isn't a very technical term. Bark isn't even a single type of tissue. Instead, bark encompasses several different kinds of tissues. If you remember back to Plant Growth 101, you may have heard the word "cambium" get thrown around. Cambium is a layer of actively dividing tissue sandwiched between the xylem and the phloem in the stems and roots of plants. As this layer grows and divides, the inside cells become the xylem whereas the outside cells become the phloem. 

Successive divisions produce what is known as secondary phloem. This is where the bark begins. On the outside of this secondary phloem are three rings of tissues collectively referred to as the "periderm." It is the periderm which is responsible for the distinctive bark patterns we see. As a layer of cells called the "cork cambium" divides, the outer layer becomes cork. These cells die as soon as they are fully developed. This layer is most obvious in smooth bark species such as beech. 

Similar to insect growth, however, the growth of the insides of a tree will eventually outpace the bark. When this happens, the periderm begins to split and cracks will begin to appear in the bark. This phenomenon is most readily visible in trees like red oaks. When this starts to happen, cells within the secondary phloem begin to divide. This forms a new periderm underneath the old one. The cumulative result of this results in alternating layers of old periderm tissue referred to as "rhytidome." 

This gives trees like black cherry their scaly appearance or, if the rhytidome consists of tight layers, the characteristic ridges of white ash and white oak. Essentially, the distribution and growth pattern of the periderm gives the tree its bark characteristics. But why do trees do this? Why is bark there in the first place?

The dominant role of bark is protection. Without it, vital vascular tissues risk being damaged and the tree would rapidly loose water. It also protects the tree from pests and pathogens. The cell walls of cork contain high amounts of suberin, a waxy substance that protects against desiccation, insect attack, as well as fungal and bacterial infection. Thick bark can also insulate trees from fire. 

Countless aspects of the environment have influenced the evolution of tree bark. In some species such as aspen or sycamore, the trunk and stems function as additional photosynthetic organs. In these species, cork layers are thin and often flaky. Shedding these thin layers of bark ensures that buildup of mosses, lichens, and other epiphytes doesn't interfere with photosynthesis. The white substance on paper birch bark not only inhibits fungal growth, it also helps prevent desiccation while at the same time making it distasteful for browsing insects and mammals alike.

When you consider all the different roles that bark can play, it is no wonder then that there are so many different kinds. This is only the tip of the ice berg. Entire scientific careers have been devoted to understanding this group of tissues. For now, winter is an excellent time to start noticing bark. Take some time and get to know the trees around you for their bark rather than their leaves.

Photo Credits: Eli Sagor (, Randy McRoberts (, Lotus Johnson (, SNappa2006 (, and nutmeg66 (

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