The Tree Book, a book about trees (and people)

Should any trees reincarnated as The Tree Book be pleased or offended?

The Tree Book by Dorling Kindersley, 2022. Dorling Kindersley.

Last year – 2022 – was a good year for books about trees. We had Paul Smith’s Trees [reviewed here], Peter Thomas’ Trees [sadly, my requests for a review copy of this title have gone unanswered, so I can’t tell you what I think about that tome…], and The Tree Book by Dorling Kindersley [which title is here appraised].

Mainly objective

The Tree Book has 300 pages of main text spread over three Chapters: How trees work, Non-flowering trees [i.e. gymnosperms], and Flowering trees [the angiosperms] (which is the biggest chapter – about two-thirds of the book). No sources are indicated anywhere for the stated facts, and there’s no indication of any further reading. The book concludes with a Glossary (approx. two 4-columned pages, from ‘Alternate’ to ‘Whorl’), an Index (10, 4-columned pages, from ‘Abies sp.’ to ‘zoophily’) [based on a count of the listing of scientific names, 269 taxa are mentioned in the book], and Acknowledgements [in which we learn that ‘additional text’ was supplied by Richard Gilbert and Sarah MacLeod].

Chapter 1

In approx. 30 pages this chapter attempts to outline how trees evolved, and where and how they live. Interestingly, this section states that there are two types of plants, herbs, and shrubs; a tree is therefore just a big shrub. Whilst it’s acknowledged as not being the most scientifically robust or defensible definition of a tree, it serves its purpose. This chapter provides a pretty good summary of tree biology and ecology. Importantly, and acknowledging that several tree species occur together (and with other species of living things), we have a consideration of how forests work, followed by separate sections for four types of forests – tropical, seasonal tropical, temperate broadleaved, and coniferous. Chapter 1 ends with a 2-page spread with important information about Trees and the environment.

Chapters 2 and 3

After the ‘science’ in Chapter 1, Chapters 2 and 3 focus on the ‘stories’, and ‘history’ (and more) of the trees in 90 separate ‘essays’. Each of these items has a formulaic layout – at the start anyway. The entry is headed up with the plant’s common name in English, with the scientific name beneath (and correctly italicised). Somewhere on that first page is also a box that has the following sections: Group [cycads, ginkgoes, conifers, magnoliids, monocots, or eudicots]; Family [e.g. Ginkgoaceae, Pinaceae, Betulaceae, Fagaceae…]; Height [presumably of the above-ground portion]; and Spread [I’m guessing this is diameter of the crown rather than the underground root system]. Depending on the species, a combination of the following also feature: Leaf (or Leaves); Bark; Cone (if a non-flowering tree, or West Indies mahogany); Flower(s) (if a flowering tree); Fruit(s); Catkin (for walnut); and/or Seed. A charming miniature picture shows the aerial part of the tree in outline. For evergreen species (most of the gymnosperms and some angiosperms such as red mangrove and bitter orange), the outlined tree is shown fully leaved; for deciduous species (such as gingko, Japanese larch, and the majority of the angiosperms), one half is shown in leaf, the other as a leaf-free silhouette.

The essays begin with queen sago (Cycas circinalis), and end with red mangrove (Rhizophora mangle) [although the final two pages of Chapter 3 [Flowering trees] is a double-page spread of images of swamp cypress (Taxodium distichum), a non-flowering tree]. Trees showcased include: ginkgo; kauri; coast redwood; bristlecone pine; magnolia; cinnamon (and nutmeg, but not cloves…); coconut palm (and date palm); paper birch; sugar maple; horse chestnut (and sweet chestnut); olive; cacao; frankincense (but not myrrh); tea (and coffee); white mulberry; sacred fig; rainbow eucalyptus [is there a tree with more-beautiful bark?]; cashew (and Brazil and macadamia nuts, but not pistachio); mango; neem; teak; mahogany; cinchona; rubber tree; and bitter orange.

The length of each entry varies from a single page (e.g. kapok, and common lime), to two pages (e.g. Italian cypress, and incense cedar), three pages (e.g. Japanese larch), four pages (e.g. English yew, and common juniper), and six pages for such trees as Japanese cherry, English oak, and African baobab. All essays are a great mix of illustrations (usually in full colour), text (which includes continuous narrative and highlighted quotes), and white space.

Mainly subjective…

The Tree Book is a well-written and beautiful book, with many stunning images of trees, tree parts, and products. In fact, there are so many arresting pictures gathered in one place that one could – almost! – be forgiven for being quite blasé about the awesomeness and majesty of its subject matter. But the images are magnificent, and a particular favourite of mine was the two-page photograph of the avenue of baobabs on pp. 98/9. The book also has some nice graphics – especially How trees evolved [which neatly uses a tree ring analogy to illustrate the course of evolution of tree groups], and Using trees [a summary of how humankind has used trees throughout the ages, from approx. 1 million years ago with evidence of fire in a cave in South Africa [presumably this is a reference to Wonderwerk Cave in the Kalahari Desert (Matt Kaplan, Nature (2012); https://doi.org/10.1038/nature.2012.10372)], to 2019 and the ‘plyscraper’ building in Norway]. Although one must question how realistic is the diagram of a vascular bundle on p. 18. For the majority of the images one has a sense of scale because the size of the tree is indicated in the standard box for each entry. However, some indication of size would be useful for the photomicrograph of elm stem (p. 18).

Within the severe constraints of only 30 or so pages, Chapter 1 delivers a good overview of the general biology and ecology of trees. In connection with the How Forests Work section – a very ecological contribution, both Suzanne Simard and the wood-wide web (Robert Macfarlane) (although shown as unhyphenated wood wide web here, on p. 28) is mentioned. Regarding the latter, we are told that “chemical and perhaps electrical signals can be sent through the network. As a result , a tree can recognise its own offspring and send nutrients to support their growth” (p. 28). However, and rather strangely, the term ‘wood wide web’ is not present in the Index or the Glossary. It’s almost as if the writers/publisher wanted to acknowledge the existence of this phenomenon, but not to be seen to publicise or promote it (which, in view of the analysis of this phenomenonn by Justine Karst et al. (Nat Ecol Evol (2023). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41559-023-01986-1) may actually be a wise move…).

The Tree Book is an unashamed celebration of trees. But, with only a few hundred pages it’s inevitable that much of that fascinating story – especially the historical and cultural relationships between people and trees – will have been omitted. And deciding what to include and what to leave out must have been a tricky decision to make. However, one important element of how people have exploited plants – and specifically the walnut tree – is not present. Wisely, the book doesn’t repeat the age-old ‘advice’ that “a woman, a dog, and a walnut tree, the more you beat them the better they be”. But, it has missed an opportunity to educate its readers about the Doctrine of Signatures (Bradley Bennett). That ancient notion postulates that plants resemble the body parts they are intended to treat. One of the classic examples of this concept is the similarity of walnut (the fruit and seed) to the human skull, and brain, respectively. This was interpreted as a sign that these walnut parts are useful for treating ailments concerning the head. Furthermore, with “just over 60,000 species of trees worldwide” (p. 14)*, how were the handful included in the book chosen? We aren’t told. That is where a general introduction to the book – which isn’t there – could have been useful. All one can conclude is that the highlighted species have a lot of relevance to people.

The Tree Book is not only stuffed with fantastic images, it’s also full of fascinating facts – not just botany, but also art, exploration, etymology, geography, history, food, culture, etc. As a visual and informative feast, one can happily wile away many hours just admiring the book’s pictures or dipping into its pages and following-up some interesting tree-based titbit or another. And, with so many facts packed into the book, it’s a great source of information and inspiration for those of us who talk or write about trees and people. For example, having recently read Hortus curious by Michael Perry, and learnt a lot about the extremely venomous gympie-gympie plant (Dendrocnide moroides) (Marina Hurley), mention of the gympie nut tree understandably caught my eye. Having researched gympie nut (Macadamia ternifolia)**, I find that it presents no known hazards, and its seed [the so-called ‘nut’] and oil have an edibility rating of 4 out of 5. However, it’s also stated – and by no lesser authorities than the alliance of the Macadamia Conservation Trust, the Macadamia Fund, and the Australian Macadamia Society – that the nuts are “intensely bitter, inedible”. Lessons learnt from this? Don’t – necessarily – rely on common names as an indication of a plant’s properties, and check several sources before making a decision on edibility of a plant’s parts.

And there are plenty more literary items of interest as well. For example, these wise words: “Wisdom is like the baobab tree; no one individual can embrace it” (p. 207). This saying captures well the fact that this tree has tremendous girth; the book tells us that a Senegalese specimen – presumably of Adansonia digitata – has a diameter of 28.7 m. Throughout the main part of the book, the trees and their stories –  both biology and plant and people aspects of each species – are beautifully integrated.

However, The Tree Book wasn’t without its awkward moment, which arose when I came across mention of kaffir lime (Citrus hystrix). Both the plant’s scientific name and common name are shown in-text (p. 299) and in the Index (p. 313). I previously highlighted concerns over the use of this particular common name in appraising DK’s The science of plants: I’d encourage readers to read that item to find out more about the inappropriateness of the descriptor ‘kaffir’.

Let’s hear it for the authors

No authors are named on the cover of The Tree Book. But, it can’t be anonymous, or written by some artificially-intelligent entity such as ChatGPT (Sally Weale), its content will have been provided by people. In place of ‘authors’, we are told (on p. 5 in quite small print) that the following were contributors to the book: Michael Scott OBE; Dr Ross Bayton***; Andrew Mikolajski***; and Keith Rushforth. Additionally, there were two Consultants: Chris Clennett, and Fiona Stafford. They all have backgrounds of relevance to the subject matter of The Tree Book, which is encouraging. However, it would be useful to know what each contributed – or was consulted upon – in terms of the book’s content. Since the book only has three chapters at least one  of those – and most likely all – must have been multi-authored. In reality it seems probable that each of the umpteen separate tree essays or the different sections under How trees work will have been penned by a named individual. Or, given the range of topics covered in each individual tree story, maybe several authors contributed different parts? We don’t know, so we can only thank the team – and that includes Richard Gilbert and Sarah MacLeod [see Mainly objective… section] en masse for producing a truly outstanding contribution to the plants-and-people genre, which one will no doubt be consulting for many years to come.

Let’s hear it for the competition

If we aren’t told who wrote what in The Tree Book, at least we ought to be told where the information that’s assembled in the book came from. But, that also seems destined to remain a secret. With no sources stated for any of the statements of fact that are to be found on almost every page of the book, the interested reader has no easy way to pursue his/her new-found interest in trees by consulting the original sources for what s/he’s read. And, the rightly mildly-sceptical reader [which includes this reviewer] has no chance of checking to ensure the information has been packaged for the reader correctly. And that’s always a shame because it does undermine any claim that the book is one of genuine scholarship. I believe The Tree Book to be a work of genuine scholarship, but can’t prove it.

Similarly, it’s disappointing that there are no recommendations of further reading for interested readers to take their reading about trees and people further. Such a listing is a lot easier to produce than the detailed cross-referencing of facts to sources and would be of great benefit to the readers. Whether absence of such a listing is a result of the publisher not wishing to ‘promote’ the publications of competitors, we don’t know. But, the goodwill that such a section could generate seems more important than any commercial concern over a bit of ‘lost’ revenue from fewer book sales, and would be a nice philanthropic gesture that can only be to Dorling Kindersley’s credit in the long run.

Which reminds me…

With its mix of biology and people relevance, The Tree Book has the hallmarks of a tree title from Reaktion Book’s Botanical series (e.g. palm, ash, and birch). True, The Tree Book has more science, is much bigger, and covers a far greater number of species and plant families in a single publication than one of Reaktion’s botanical books, but its intimate mix of plants and people was both similar and familiar – which is a good thing. As its back cover states, The Tree Book combines “science with history, and folklore with culture”. For completeness, other books about trees that have a similar breadth of coverage are: Jonathan Drori’s Around the World in 80 Trees, and Kevin Hobbs & David West’s The Story of Trees. All five book titles mentioned here should be considered as further reading. And, as a service to the public, some other tree books I’m happy to suggest as additional/further reading are: Paul Smith’s Trees, Tony Hall’s The Immortal Yew, Mulberry by Peter Coles, and Valerie Trouet’s Tree story.

Summary

Overlooking the absence of sources for any of its content, The Tree Book by Dorling Kindersley is a brilliant book, and a great addition to the plants-and-people genre. What more need I say?


* A good starting point for a source for this fact is the BBC News article by Mark Kniver. Or you could go straight to the peer-reviewed publication by Emily Beech et al. (Journal of Sustainable Forestry 36: 454-489, 2017; doi: 10.1080/10549811.2017.1310049).

** As part of my gympie nut tree research I also revisited my gympie-gympie plant researches and now understand the distinction between poisonous and venomous (John Rafferty; Stephanie Root; Tommy Springer).

*** These individuals also contributed to Dorling Kindersley’s The Science of Plants.

Nigel Chaffey

I am a botanist and former Senior Lecturer in Botany at Bath Spa University (Bath, near Bristol, UK). As News Editor for the Annals of Botany I contributed the monthly Plant Cuttings column to that august international botanical organ - and to Botany One - for almost 10 years. I am now a freelance plant science communicator and Visiting Research Fellow at Bath Spa University. I continue to share my Cuttingsesque items - and appraisals of books with a plant focus - with a plant-curious audience. In that guise my main goal is to inform (hopefully, in an educational, and entertaining way) others about plants and plant-people interactions, and thereby improve humankind's botanical literacy. Happy to be contacted to discuss potential writing - or talking - projects and opportunities.
[ORCID: 0000-0002-4231-9082]

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  • Took a look through the pages DK offer on their website, and what Amazon have on ‘Look inside’; on the whole, it is a lot better than I feared it might be, but not quite as good as it could have been. Seeing Keith Rushforth as a contributor gave me a lot of confidence, he’s a good author. One very welcome point which I reckon is his input, was seeing Nootka Cypress (and its hybrid Leyland Cypress) included in Cupressus, as opposed any of the multiplicity of other scientific names used in some other places.

    I share your concern though over the name K***** Lime appearing, and extend that concern not just to offensive vernacular names, but also to misleading and inaccurate names, which should also be avoided. This was already advised nearly a century ago by the American Joint Committee on Horticultural Nomenclature (Whenever a common name properly belonging to one genus is used as a name for a plant of some other genus (unless rarely where very closely related) it is to he used only as part of a compound name, written either with a hyphen or solid). It is a shame the text does not follow this, unlike the BSBI Checklist, where e.g. Aesculus hippocastanum is hyphenated Horse-chestnut, to indicate it is not a Chestnut Castanea. Another, Cupressus sempervirens does not occur naturally in Italy, so ‘Italian Cypress’ is inaccurate; it should have been Mediterranean Cypress, which better indicates its native origin in the Mediterranean region. The book would also be improved if they followed IUCN and BSBI in the standard of capitalising species names (e.g. ‘Sweet Chestnut’, not ‘sweet chestnut’) throughout, rather than just in the headers (where it is welcome!).

    So, overall: good, but could have been even better.

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