80 wonderful trees and their stories

Around the World in 80 Trees by Jonathan Drori 2018. Laurence King Publishing Ltd.

Stephen Barstow did it with plants, Dan Cruikshank did it with man-made ‘treasures’, and now Jonathan Drori’s done it with trees. Done what? Taken us on a world tour in his wonderful book entitled Around the World in 80 Trees [hereafter called 80 Trees]. As you’ll have noted, my assessment of 80 Trees has already been given in that one word: Wonderful. But, I suppose a book review ought to say a little more, by way of justification for that view. So here goes.

Simply put, 80 Trees provides an illustrated guide to 80 trees, from around the world, and gives us examples of the ways in which they’ve interacted with people over thousands of years.

For the most part, the genera covered in 80 Trees are single species (not that the genera are necessarily monotypic, but only one species of a genus is generally mentioned specifically). However, and for good reasons, the book does include 2 Quercus spp., 2 Larix spp., 3 Ficus spp., and several Cinchona spp. Taxonomically, the majority of the 80 Trees are angiosperms – both dicots and monocots (e.g. a number of palm species are covered). Although the latter aren’t ‘true‘ trees, they certainly embrace the ‘tree habit’ and must be considered fair game as far as Drori’s ‘pragmatic’ definition of a tree for the book’s purposes is concerned. Thirteen gymnosperms (which are ‘proper’ trees with decent wood), such as coco-de-mer, Wollemi pine, and western hemlock, are also ‘showcased’. And how these trees are showcased!

Amongst its treasures, 80 Trees highlights the stories of such iconic trees as: Leyland cypress (the scourge of suburbia in the UK); the fungally-fated elm; the bee-befuddling linden; the lightning-repelling beech; the NASA space-shuttle-swaddling cork oak; the goat-supporting argan tree; the gluten-free sweet chestnut; the ‘socially-lubricating’ kola tree; frankincense (which give us “the sweat of the gods fallen to Earth”); the strangler fig; the tooth-blackening betel palm; the sacred peepul tree (the cutting of which is more sinful than killing a saint…); the Japanese monk-mummifying Chinese lacquer tree; the telegraph cable-insulating gutta-percha tree; the European empire-expanding quinine tree; lignum vitae (the wood of life…); bald cypress (whose ‘knees’ were used by Native Americans as bee-hives…); and sugar maple (whose timber is solid enough for baseball bats). Every tree has a tale to tell – sometimes several! – and they’re all told extremely well by Drori whose writing style is admirable with some really nice turns of phrase.

With 60,065 spp. of trees to choose from, Drori explains that, for him, “the most satisfying tree stories are the ones in which a piece of plant science has surprising human ramifications” (p. 9). Although his choice of 80 for the book was based upon their “interest and their diversity” (p. 9), he also acknowledges that those few dozen illustrate only a tiny fraction of the myriad ways in which trees and humans interact. And, with more than 60,000 tree species out there, there’s clearly plenty of scope for a 2nd (3rd, 4th…) collection of ‘top 80’ trees. Whether that will happen I don’t known, but it would be nice to see such trees as mango, cocoa, papaya, gingko, and hazel given Drori’s unique treatment.

In addition to the ‘people stories behind the trees’, and throughout the book, Drori is keen to stress the need to preserve/conserve genetic diversity amongst ancestral populations of the species covered, to help guard against future disease, etc. It’s only if that advice is heeded that we’ll continue to have the living trees to remind us of the important role(s) they’ve played in human history instead of just memories recorded in books such as 80 Trees. Regardless of how well it’s written (and it is well written!), 80 Trees is not a book to read in one sitting. Rather, it’s one to savour, and dip into now-and-again, the better to appreciate its delights, and select a few interesting tales to enliven a plant biology lecture. Or just to remind oneself of the debt we owe these incredible plants.

With an acknowledged nod in the direction (!) of Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days, Drori claims to have set out eastwards from his home in London – à la Phineas Fogg in Verne’s book. And this gives rise to my only quibble with 80 Trees. Drori’s first destination is England (with its London plane and Leyland cypress). The specific London plane tree Drori had in mind might be situated east of his home – we will probably never know. But we are told that Leyland cypress is named after the estate in mid-Wales (which country is not east of London – not in any most-direct travel sense anyway) where this hybrid was discovered (and which was the property of Christopher Leyland). We next travel to Ireland (and the strawberry tree) which country is definitely neither east of London nor even east of England. Thereafter and therefrom it’s a trip eastwards to Scotland (and silver birch), but much of which country one suspects is probably west of London… It’s only after we go on – now eastwards – to Finland (for silver birch), and various countries of Europe that we might be moving in the declared easterly direction of travel*. That niggling aspect of 80 Trees is easily remedied if that singular directional reference to ‘Verne’s 80 days’ (on p. 10) is removed – maybe in a revised edition.

One departure from an academic text, or even those not-so-academic titles in collections such as Reaktion Books’ Botanical series (e.g. Sunflowers by Stephen Harris) is the absence of any references in-text. Although follow-up books and other resource are listed at the back of the book, they’re not cross-referenced to facts or statements in the text itself. This means that we have to take everything Drori says ‘on trust’. Not that I have any reason to doubt the sincerity of his words; I’ve read enough books and articles about trees to recollect reading several of the statements in 80 Trees elsewhere (so they at least have the familiarity – if not necessarily the veracity – borne from being oft-repeated). It’s just that the teacher in me likes to see evidence-based writing as an example of best practice to my students. Still, as long as they cite Drori (2018) for the facts they might chose to cite from his book, that’s an appropriate acknowledgment.

Finally, and whilst we rightly applaud Drori’s text, it’s also appropriate to give a separate mention to the wonderful illustrations in 80 Trees, which are lovingly provided by Lucille Clerc. Although photographs could have been used, they would have given the book the feel of an ID guide, which it isn’t. Inclusion of Clerc’s beautifully-observed, hand-drawn illustrations gets us away from that potentially dry, instructional, textbook quality and instead captures aspects of the trees and their stories and adds to the book’s more ethnobotanical or humanitarian message.

Summary

Around the World in 80 Trees by Jonathan Drori is full of amazing trees and their equally amazing stories. It’s a great blend of plants and people and goes straight on to the 2018/19 reading list for my Plants and People module!


* Although how one justifies jumping from the Ukraine (horse-chestnut) westwards (as the shortest route; you can get there travelling east but it’s a lot, lot longer and frankly a bizarre way to go) to Portugal (for cork oak) is irritatingly ungeographical…