Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew announced yesterday that the recipient of this year’s Kew International Medal is Professor Suzanne Simard, Canadian Professor of Forest Ecology at the University of British Columbia. Professor Simard has received the award in recognition of her work exploring and sharing the complexity and wonder of trees and forests.
Established in 1992, the prestigious Kew International Medal is a biennial award given to an individual whose accomplishments align with globally recognised scientific institution RBG Kew’s mission to understand and protect plants and fungi, for the wellbeing of people and the future of all life on Earth. Nominations are received from across the organisation and a selection panel decides the winner. Previous award winners have included Sir David Attenborough (1996); Sir Partha Dasgupta, world-leading economist and author of The Economics of Biodiversity: The Dasgupta Review (2021) and most recently, Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, Executive Secretary of the CBD (2022).
Simard was selected for this year’s Medal for her longstanding dedication to researching trees, forests and their complex ecosystems and for her substantial contribution to the increased understanding of ecological resilience. In particular, her work on how trees interact through below-ground fungal networks has led to the recognition that forests have hub trees, or Mother Trees: large, highly connected trees that play an important role in the flow of information and resources in a forest. Simard’s current research investigates how these complex relationships contribute to forest resilience, adaptability and recovery and has far-reaching implications for how to manage and heal forests from human impacts, including climate change.
Also recognised is her work as a science communicator: a scientist who conveys complex, technical ideas to a wide array of audiences. Her TED talks on how she believes trees talk to each other have been viewed by more than 10 million people worldwide and her memoir, Finding the Mother Tree (published by Penguin Random House in 2021) has gone on to influence many, including filmmakers. It inspired the Tree of Souls in James Cameron’s Avatar and a new film by Bond Group Entertainment, starring Amy Adams. On announcing the project in 2021, Adams praised the book as ‘a call to action to protect, understand and connect with the natural world.’
In nominating Suzanne for the Kew International medal, Penny Brice, Kew Diploma Student, RBG Kew’s School of Horticulture said: “Through her research Professor Simard revealed that plants, in particular trees, could work together as a community not as individuals in a forest. The discovery of extensive mycorrhizal networks in the soil has highlighted how species interact and how important it is to understand these complex relationships. Professor Simard, against a backdrop of institutional patriarchy and resistance to contemporary science, followed her instincts and pursued her research in order to challenge the detrimental forestry management in British Columbia and to champion the importance of these rich and diverse environments globally.”
On learning of the award Professor Simard said: “I am delighted to receive the Kew International Medal this year. Forests are made of relationships that create community and their connectedness keeps them healthy and resilient. Working to solve mysteries of what made forests tick, and how they are linked made me the scientist I am today. The invaluable global scientific work that RBG Kew does is helping to conserve and protect plants as well as support livelihoods and communities for a sustainable future.”
The Kew International Medal was presented to Professor Simard in a ceremony at London’s Royal Society on 30 March 2023, where she delivered a keynote lecture entitled ‘The importance of keeping community in forests’. In her lecture, she called for protection and restoration of primary forests and landscapes, as well as the need to listen and learn from local communities to protect habitats.
Dame Amelia Fawcett, Chair of the Board of Trustees of RBG, Kew, who presented Professor Simard with the Medal said: “We’re delighted to acknowledge Professor Simard’s invaluable work and devotion to championing biodiversity within forest management. Suzanne’s work complements RBG Kew’s vision; to build a world where plants and fungi are understood, valued and conserved – because our lives depend on them. Through its world-class research and diverse living collections, Kew scientists are discovering long-term solutions to combat biodiversity loss and climate change. It is vital that we cultivate the next generation of scientists – mycologists, botanists and arboriculturists – and give them the tools they need to ensure the future care of our planet. Following COP15, RBG Kew is perfectly placed to continue to shape debate and policy, utilising our global partnerships and unique collections to ensure the biodiversity crisis remains a critical focus on the road to 2030”.
RBG Kew has an active mycorrhizal fungi research group exploring the diversity, distribution and functional traits of mycorrhizal fungi in forests, grasslands and heathlands to help unearth the crucial role of fungi in plant establishment, nutrition and resilience. RBG Kew also has the world’s largest fungarium, with 1.25 million samples of fungi from all seven continents, spanning the entire fungal tree of life and representing well over half of known global diversity.
Picture: Prof Suzanne Simard explores Kew Gardens Temperate House © RBG Kew by Ines Stuart-Davidson