I've always been curious about trees but have never been quite satisfied with books about them. What I've wanted is a book that would intertwine different disciplines – plant science, history, the origin of names, folklore and be gorgeously illustrated. That's why I’ve tried to bring all these together in Around the World in 80 Trees.
I got my love of trees from my parents. My father revelled in botany and science, my mother in human stories about plants and folklore, and they both loved the beauty of trees. When I was 12, our class spent two days in local libraries researching a project of our choosing. Mine was 'Oak trees in Richmond Park', and I remember just loving finding out about them. Decades later, I decided to write a book that my friends might enjoy – 80 biographies of tree species around the world, weaving together popular science, history, folklore, human stories, etymology and the bizarre antics that trees, and people, get up to.
I’m hoping that readers from different backgrounds will find things they hadn’t known, or arguments that are new. There’s a pretty even spread of species from all over the world. With a wink of the eye, for southern England I chose Leylandii, an interesting botanical story about two trees from opposite ends of California that should never have met and mated in a garden in Wales. It's also a story that says so much about the British and their attitude to privacy and marking territory. Some of the trees will be familiar but I hope the stories will be surprising: the beech and its links to the written word – and its ability to withstand lightning strikes; why Germans put up with the sticky rain of honeydew from lime trees; the odd superstitions about emotional and physical pain surrounding the willow, which have a basis in science. Then there are exotic species such as the metal-hoarding tree of New Caledonia and the resinous Jarrah from SW Australia that once paved the swankiest streets of London.
Getting it together
It took me about a year to do the research. That was the best bit and I did that on my own. Who would want to employ someone to be curious on their behalf? I talked to scientists and people who study the uses of plants and I spent many, many happy days in the research library at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. As well as relying on my experience travelling, both as a documentary film-maker for the BBC and on Kew expeditions (I was a trustee there), I visited plenty of botanic gardens doing my research too. You have to get up close and personal to be able to describe trees well.
My favourite tree
I’m often asked which my favourite tree in the book is. That’s like asking which is your favourite child! I think it depends on my mood. Sometimes it’s the Japanese lacquer tree, partly because of Lucille Clerc’s spellbinding illustrations and partly because of the extraordinarily creepy story of its sap. Of course, it has been used to craft the most exquisite objects – imagine what lacquer would have felt like hundreds of years before plastics came along. But then there’s another less well known use of that same sap, involving monks who mummified themselves, while they were still alive. Definitely not a children’s bedside story, that one!
If I was stuck on a desert island
Researching the book, I found out about an amazing tree in Hawaii called Koa, which the local people have used for hundreds of years to make ocean going dug-out canoes. I think that would be jolly handy if I wanted to escape a desert island – along with coconut and mango trees to keep me going while I made my boat. Koa is an immensely valuable and thank goodness, protected timber. When polished it exhibits a red-gold ‘chatoyance’ – a sort of 3D effect like tiger’s eye.
I’ve never managed to get to Bhutan or Costa Rica. Those countries have very interesting plants and also enlightened attitudes towards preserving and expanding their forest cover that frankly put us Brits to shame.
What tree would I be?
I was in Namibia recently, filming in a very harsh desert. There in the middle of nowhere, with nothing else growing anywhere nearby, was a thriving and hopelessly beautiful 25-foot high Quiver tree. It’s a relative of the Aloe vera that you might be familiar with and it got its name from the San people who hollowed out the branches to keep their hunting arrows inside. That’s all lovely, but what I so like about it is that, thriving against all odds and being the Namibian national tree, people smile whenever they see it. And then they touch it; it has a deliciously smooth powdery surface that’s evolved to reflect the harsh ultraviolet glare. The idea of being a tree that makes people happy and want to stroke it – I think that’s what I’d like to be!
Have I been able to whet your appetite to find out more? I hope so and I hope that you enjoy reading Around the World in 80 Trees as much as I enjoyed researching and writing it!
"Full of new ideas and wonderful stories about the trees that helped shape us, I really loved this entertaining and erudite world journey." Beccy Speight, Chief Executive, The Woodland Trust
"This is the best love letter to trees I have ever read. Had I written it myself, I would die happy." Sir Tim Smit, Founder of The Eden Project
"One of the most quietly beautiful books of the year." The Daily Mail
"A gorgeously illustrated collection of fascinating biographies of some of the world’s most extraordinary trees. Jonathan’s sense of wonder at the diversity of the natural world shines through on every page." Richard Deverell, Director, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew