Colin Tudge is a multiple award-winning science writer whose previous books have covered the interrelated topics of global ecology, ethology, agriculture, and food and famine. The Tree: A Natural History of What Trees Are, How They Live, and Why They Matter, with its popular science appeal, suggests a more narrow focus, but again Tudge brings his encyclopedic knowledge to demonstrate that the lives and deaths of trees affect every part of planet Earth, from polar caps to living creatures, and in turn are affected by them.
This large volume is separated into four parts: “What Is a Tree?” (Tudge humorously defines it in many places as a big plant with a stick up the middle), “All the Trees in the World,” “The Life of Trees,” and “Trees and Us.” The second part is by far the largest and can serve as an encyclopedia, arranged taxonomically rather than alphabetically. Here, Tudge provides phylogenetic facts, vivid delineations of appearance and flowers often accompanied by black-and-white sketches by artist Dawn Burford, habitats, behaviors, predators, and uses by humans, from commerce to pharmaceuticals to mythology, along with many other details.
Readers who are unfamiliar with trees will find intriguing information provided in a chatty, often witty tone. For example, they may not know that hundreds of apple varieties available at the supermarket are clones: Each was taken from a cutting of a cutting of a cutting going all the way back to the original cultivar of its sort (the Golden Delicious, say). Those same grocery shoppers who purchase vitamins C and E will learn that trees also need antioxidants, which reveal their presence in the famous New England red-orange maple leaves of autumn. The botanically untutored may be surprised to learn that Spanish moss, pineapples, bamboos, and grasses are closely related, while the banana tree is not a tree at all, but rather a giant herb. Christmas mistletoe and the sandalwood tree are beautiful, but they are parasites. Lovers of nature who enjoy walking in grass may mourn to see lovely green lawns decapitated by mowers or shredded by grazing animals, but grasses are organisms that actually benefit from predation; if not torn, they become rank.
Many sections and subsections of Tudge’s book are staged as mini-mysteries, with the trees as tricksters and their scholars as detectives. He provokes the reader with a question and then explains how the answer was discovered or hypothesized. How do trees, lacking brains and nervous systems, seem to “know about” their environment and how to react to weather and parasites? One fascinating case is that of the mopane tree of Africa, which evidently alerts nearby mopanes when elephants begin to eat their leaves; perhaps using airborne chemicals, the first mopane warns that it is under attack, and within a few minutes the elephants decide that the next tree, and the next, does not taste so very good after all, and they will wander elsewhere to browse.
The mysteries come in all forms and illustrate how bizarre Earth’s vegetation can be or become. Why do many trees prosper when clustered in groves, and why do others thrive only when “parent” and “offspring” grow widely apart from each other? Why are the tropics filled with such diversity, whereas Canada is dominated by a mere nine species of trees? How does symbiosis evolve, and why do symbionts not “cheat” on each other? Why (until recent replantings) were the only tambalacoque trees on Mauritius over three hundred years oldand is it coincidence that the Mauritius dodo became extinct three hundred years ago? How did parasites make biodiversity possible as long ago as the age of the dinosaurs? Tudge narrates the complex interrelationship among figs, fig wasps, and nematode parasites as dramatically as though they were characters in a play; he keeps the pages turning with this useful storytelling strategy. Throughout, he demonstrates how and why some hypotheses about arboreal behaviors complement each other and others are at odds. The study of trees, in itself, is a story filled with twists and turns, protagonists and antagonists, tragedies and triumphs.
Tudge waxes anecdotal in surprising places in this saga of trees. Some explorers,...
(The entire section is 1741 words.)