The roots of ex­tra­or­di­nary trees

Down to Earth - - FRONT PAGE - (With Ishan Kukreti) @down2earth­in­dia

In Around the World in 80 Trees, JONATHAN DRORI brings out the un­sung botan­i­cal heroes out of their re­con­dite ex­is­tence. He de­scribes their geo­graph­i­cal phy­logeny, eco­log­i­cal ser­vices, and most im­por­tantly, their so­ci­o­log­i­cal im­por­tance. In fact, it is the hu­man sto­ries of myths and be­liefs around their flora that make the book so ex­tra­or­di­nary. He speaks to S S JEEVAN The book un­veils un­told link­ages be­tween trees and his­tory as well as cul­ture. Could you share some ex­pe­ri­ences of your re­search journey?

Un­cov­er­ing the en­tan­gle­ments be­tween plant sci­ence, his­tory and cul­ture has been a joy. From the cork oak forests of the Ibe­rian penin­sula, to the link be­tween the East­ern White Pine and the push for Amer­i­can in­de­pen­dence, and from the birch trees of north­ern Fin­land and their as­so­ci­a­tion with hal­lu­cino­genic fungi, to the “resin rush” that at­tracted prospec­tors from all over the world to seek their for­tunes in the Kauri forests of New Zealand, the bizarre an­tics of trees are sec­ond only to the strange things that hu­man be­ings get up to!

Your book lu­cidly nar­rates the com­plex re­la­tion­ship of trees ZLWK RWKHU RUJDQLVPV DQG WKH HFRV\VWHP‹ELUGV LQVHFWV an­i­mals and hu­mans. What fas­ci­nated you the most?

I es­pe­cially en­joy the link be­tween plant sci­ence and hu­man

be­hav­iour. For ex­am­ple, the lac­quer tree of China and Ja­pan has prob­a­bly evolved its ir­ri­tant, toxic sap as a de­fence mech­a­nism to ward off pests.

But hu­man be­ings have crafted from it the most ex­quis­ite lac­quer­ware, a ma­te­rial that in the days be­fore plas­tics must have been truly mag­i­cal. And un­til the 19th cen­tury, there was a sect of Ja­panese monks who would starve them­selves and use bark from the tree to make a tea that would grad­u­ally “mum­mify” them while still alive. When they died, their bod­ies would not de­com­pose—they were too poi­sonous for that.

The la­tex of the gutta-per­cha tree is also a de­fence adap­ta­tion to en­gulf pests and seal wounds but it also turned out to be a per­fect un­der­wa­ter in­su­la­tor. In the sec­ond half of the 19th cen­tury, sub­ma­rine ca­bles be­gan to span the Earth. That was of mas­sive strate­gic sig­nif­i­cance and com­mer­cial im­por­tance, and wholly de­pen­dent on gutta-per­cha.

Are any of the 80 trees that you have cho­sen threat­ened by other in­va­sive alien species?

This is a prob­lem al­most ev­ery­where, as cli­mate changes and more plant species and pests hitch a ride around the world. The “tree of heaven” has in­vaded large parts of the east­ern

usa. Orig­i­nally im­ported from China, its plant­ing as a tim­ber

tree was even en­cour­aged for a while by the au­thor­i­ties. But now it’s out-com­pet­ing many other species, earn­ing it the com­mon name, “tree of hell”.

Do you think the im­pacts of cli­mate change will af­fect tree di­ver­sity and tree ex­tinc­tions in the fu­ture?

They’re ab­so­lutely bound to. In fact, they al­ready are. Trees, like ev­ery other or­gan­ism, have evolved to fill var­i­ous en­vi­ron­men­tal niches. When the en­vi­ron­ment changes, those niches may not ex­ist any­more and there­fore the trees, and all their as­so­ci­ated species will have a tough time.

We must re­mem­ber that cli­mate change doesn’t just af­fect trees di­rectly. It is also al­ter­ing the mi­gra­tion of birds and the feed­ing habits of in­sects and an­i­mals which, in turn, af­fect tree pol­li­na­tion and seed dis­per­sal. This puts fur­ther strain on ecosys­tems. And of course, hu­man be­ings are mi­grat­ing away from drought- and flood-stricken ar­eas, adding to the com­pe­ti­tion for land else­where.

The cli­mate change that’s hap­pen­ing now is so rapid that the main mech­a­nism that I’ve seen is for trees in a par­tic­u­lar habi­tat to be quite quickly out-com­peted by other species that can cope bet­ter with the new con­di­tions. In Europe for ex­am­ple, Mediter­ranean species such as olive and fig are be­gin­ning to be cul­ti­vated fur­ther north and the Cedar of Le­banon is be­ing con­sid­ered as a tim­ber tree for cen­tral Europe.

Any tree/s that you may have wanted to in­clude that are not there in the 80?

There are more than 60,000 tree species in the world and I only had room for 80! I came across so many won­der­ful sto­ries. Maybe one day I’ll write about the re­mark­able quiver tree, rel­a­tive of Aloe vera used in cos­met­ics and a na­tional sym­bol of Namibia, which thrives and reaches im­pres­sive height in parched desert where hardly any­thing will grow. The San peo­ple used hol­lowed branches for hold­ing ar­rows but I par­tic­u­larly like it be­cause it seems to be a tree that makes ev­ery­one smile.

Do you have a per­sonal favourite ori­gin story of a tree that you find fas­ci­nat­ing?

The Wollemi pine of Aus­tralia was known only from the fos­sil records and was as­sumed to be ex­tinct. Then in 1994, a colony of trees was dis­cov­ered, alive and well, in a se­cluded val­ley just 150 km from Syd­ney. It was the botan­i­cal equiv­a­lent of com­ing across a lit­tle di­nosaur trot­ting around!


Coco-de-mer, Sey­chelles: 7KLV WUHH V VHHGV ZHUH HDUOLHU UHSRUWHG DV WKH kFXUYDFHRXV ZRPDQ V SHOYLFy E\ (XURSHDQ VDLORUV LQ WKH ,QGLDQ 2FHDQ 7KLV VKRXOG JLYH RQH DQ LGHD DERXW the size of the tree and its seed. And a few leafs of Coco-de-mer is enough to thatch a house. The Coco-de-mer, how­ever, has now es­ca­lated from be­ing a mere pelvic, float­ing in the mid­dle RI WKH ,QGLDQ 2FHDQ WR EHLQJ D KLJKO\ SULFHG SRLVRQ QHXWUDOLVHU

Kapok, Sierra Leone: This tree can grow up to a height of a 20-storey build­ing. The anal­ogy is in­ter­est­ing be­cause, the tree, for all prac­ti­cal pur­poses, houses a range of bio­di­ver­sity, so much so that the DXWKRU FDOOV LW LWV kRZQ LVODQG RI ELRGLYHUVLW\y $HULDO plants, in­sects, birds and even frogs, which spawn in the lit­tle pools of wa­ter that form on Kapok's branches are some of the ten­ants of this struc­ture

Au­thor Jonathan Drori says pub­lic in­ter­est in plant sto­ries that cross dis­ci­plines in­spired him to write the book

Ley­land Cy­press, Eng­land: The tree is a great marker of class in Eng­land. A fate­ful hy­brid be­tween Amer­i­can yel­low cedar and Mon­terey cy­press, this sturdy tall tree has be­come a liv­ing fence, sep­a­rat­ing and pro­vid­ing pri­vacy in the closely placed English sub­ur­ban houses. It has also be­come a dividing fence be­tween the rich from the nou­veau riche, on ac­count of its image as be­ing vulgar in the gar­den­ing mar­ket. By 2005, there were more than 17,000 dis­putes be­tween neigh­bours (and many oth­ers un­re­ported), one sui­cide and two mur­ders be­cause of this tree

Kola Nut, Ghana: The tree, whose nut gave Coca Cola its name, is in­tri­cately as­so­ci­ated with the his­tory of slav­ery in Africa. In the 17th cen­tury, the tree was planted in the Caribbean and the Amer­i­cas and its nuts were eaten by the en­slaved African peo­ple as a re­minder of home and to sup­press hunger and fa­tigue

AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 TREES Jonathan Drori Lau­rence King Pub­lish­ing 240 pages | US $18.85

6¹YH %OHXH 1HZ &DOHGRQLD Grow­ing on the French ter­ri­tory of New Cale­do­nia, PLGZD\ EHWZHHQ $XVWUDOLD DQG )LML 6¹YH Bleue (mean­ing, blue sap) has found a way to sur­vive in the nu­tri­tion-poor, nickel-laden soil. The ter­ri­tory has an as­ton­ish­ingly high amount of nickel re­serves—one-fifth of the world. Even PRUH DVWRQLVKLQJ LV KRZ 6¹YH %OHXH KDV found a way to ab­sorb the heavy metal and yet stay alive. The tree se­questers nickel by form­ing a com­plex com­pound with cit­ric acid which it then pushes into the la­tex be­neath LWV EDUN $ PDWXUH 6¹YH %OHXH FDQ FRQWDLQ more than 35 kg of nickel

Neem, In­dia: It con­tains pow­er­ful chem­i­cals that dis­rupt the life cy­cles of key in­sect pests. The fact that neem has been used so widely as an in­sec­ti­cide has meant that it is dif­fi­cult for com­mer­cial agro-chem­i­cal com­pa­nies to pa­tent prod­ucts made from it, which, in turn, means that they have an in­cen­tive to pref­er­en­tially mar­ket other chem­i­cals which may be more harm­ful to the en­vi­ron­ment and pos­si­bly less ef­fec­tive. k7KH PDUNHW GRHVQ W DOZD\V JHW LW ULJKW y VD\V WKH DXWKRU

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