Friday, December 19, 2008

Trees: a Visual Guide

The University of California Press recently published a wonderful book entitled Trees: a Visual Guide (ISBN 978-0-520-25650-7, $29.95). Horticultural botanist Tony Rudd and horticulturalist Jennifer Stackhouse are the authors; both are from Australia, but the book is global in scope. How splendidly it presents the magnificent organisms that we call trees, referring to them as the "big game of the plant world."

I bought a couple of copies to give as Christmas presents. To me, the most striking element about the book is its photography, which is absolutely stunning. This kind of photography makes me want to paint and draw. The cropped shots of bark, branches, cones, etc., are near abstract in their beauty. Meant more as a scientific survey concerned with the botany, diversity and adaptations of trees, surely it will also attract as many readers with its visual richness.

That said, I learned a lot dipping into the annotations and chapters. That massive Baobob trees have inside them some kind of juicy substance that is very appealing to elephants, who are able to thrust through the tree's bark. That cones on conifers and other gymnosperms are both male and female. That an orange is technically a berry. That Batai trees can grow as much as 25 feet in a year. That Yew trees contain the anticancer compound of taxol. One chapter presents Remarkable Trees of the World. I was delighted to see that Sugar Maples were included since I used to make maple syrup when I lived in upstate New York. Also deemed remarkable: the Baobob, the Monkey Puzzle, the Pacific Madrone, Paper Birch, Calabash and Cannonball trees, among others. Their names alone are pure poetry.

My husband is a cabinetmaker, so we love all kinds of wood. His shop is full of scraps I'd love to make things with when I retire. I went through a period more than thirty years ago where I enjoyed crafting with ironwood. I had several slices cut from a hollow tree which I made into frames and mirrors, using crochet, leather and beads, etc. The practical uses of wood and tree byproducts are also highlighted in the visual guide. Not only wood for furniture and housing, but also for musical instruments, ships, and railroad ties. How about spices, fruit and drink? Also as medicine: think of quinine, eucalyptus oil, and salicin from which aspirin is derived.

I love trees in winter, their branches bare against sky. At solstice time, having just last night trimmed a Christmas tree, a post about trees seemed timely. The holidays are here. Enjoy! And don't forget to buy books for the holidays!

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