Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Festival of the Trees

Today is the 150th anniversary of a monumentous occasion for nature lovers. On this day in 1858 the Linnaean Society of London published an Essay by British explorer-naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace together with another Essay by one Charles Darwin and a letter by Darwin to Asa Gray, the American botanist. These publications unleashed upon the world the theory of natural selection and our understanding of how trees (and every other living species) came to be was changed forever. Very few living things persist that were breathing on that day 150 years ago. Perhaps a few giant tortoises, bowhead whales and deepwater sponges remain. Most of the living organisms alive that day and this day will be trees though. Trees play a unique part in our understanding of the history of a place. They change over time, often bearing scars of their experiences, but they endure as silent witnesses to past events offering us a unique way of imagining the past. Not only that but the cultivation or local abundance of some species (rubber, quinine, dates, olives) has actively changed human history. This Festival of the Trees then will be presented in a theme loosely built around the unique history and human relationships of the species represented in the posts and individuals thereof (or something a little bit along those lines with a couple of photos to break it up).

The history of Dave Bonta's Black Locusts goes back well beyond the first American humans. Those wonderful thorns they pack look reminiscent of African Acacia for a reason; they evolved to ward off mammoths, mastodon and other Pleistocene mega-fauna. Now unfortunately for Dave the thorns aren’t much use as a defence against smaller foes. Check out a tale two types of locust at Via Negativa.

Mulberry trees of course have a storied history. England has, many old Mulberrys, and a lot of them were planted in the same year 1608 (including a couple of trees in London and Cambridge I used to feast off of). The reason for this rash of planting was that King James I issued an edict positively encouraging the planting of them in order to establish a silk industry; silkworm caterpillars being particular fans of Mulberry leaves. Unfortunately for James (but fortunately for me and my fellow Mulberry afficianados) the planting was predominantly of the delicious fruiting but not nice for silkworms Black Mulberry as opposed to the White Mulberry which has these attributes reversed. You can read a more modern and personal tale of Delicious Mulberries by Bevson of Murmuring Trees.

Almost everyone who went to school in England before about 1990 will have made a personal connection with an individual horse chestnut tree. These giant buckeyes were brought from the Caucasus mountains for aesthetic reasons but I suspect huge numbers of the modern generation were planted by schoolboys wanting a conker tree of their very own. The tale of one of these Horse Chestnuts is shared by the Marvellous in Nature

Palms are of course a widespread and marvellously diverse group. For people, two palms have shaped the histories of whole continents. Cocos nucifera, the coconut, has so many uses its presence alone has allowed Asiatic and Polynesian people to spread through the pacific islands. In the middle east meanwhile Phoenix dactylifera, the date, was one of the few plants allowing people to grow a permacultural crop and date orchards have persisted in the same spots for countless years. In the Americas and Europe Palm Trees are often used simply to look awesome which is why they are a momentary at the beach favourite for Trees if you Please

Pine trees are a wonderfully widespread genus – GrannyJ's been enjoying Pine Candelabras but they've been enjoyed around the world for millennia – as cloud pruned bonsai, food, sugar or as a quick growing source of lumber or paper.


Hugh of Rock Paper Lizard, like Darwin and Wallace, explored Terra Nova (well, alright – for Hugh it was Terra Nova rural park). There he discovered a majestic European Beech and a contorted Walnut. I struggled to find a particularly interesting individual walnut story (although I did go past one planted by Sir Joseph Banks everyday on my way to school). For me though Walnuts have a peculiar historical relationship with people as a result of their slow growth, my dad always said "Plant a walnut so your son can enjoy its fruit" (he did, and we both do (pickled)) but wikipedia lists a number of regional variations of the same saying with the slightly more morose attitude that you'll die before your walnut ever gets very big (its not true – grafted walnuts fruit quickly nowadays, plant one and see).

I nearly poked my eye out on the leafpoint of a Pandan or Screwpine once – how's that for a personal relationship? Fortunately, I am (still) able to look past this incident (if you'll pardon the pun) and see (another eye pun I'm afraid) the more general lasting value and importance of the Pandanus to people. Their stout leaves have provided food, shelter and medication to the people of Oceania directly – they're also used to make textiles and even fish traps. Apparently they can also be used to rid cars of cockroaches which don't like the smell (I couldn't make it up, could I?). Dan shares some fabulous Pandanus Screwpine photos at Exploring the World of Trees
Of course if we're looking for trees with a historic connection to people the most logical place to look are areas with lots of people: cities. Many cities contain within them small enclaves and remnants of ancient forest or old orchards enveloped as cities grow and hence some great trees. New tree plantings will surely have future significance for our descendents too, be it fruit species planted to provide an urban foodshed or as Local Ecology details for use in urban water management.

Now some urban trees seem out of place in the city, like Julia's surprise Ginkgo bilobas – of course as Julia points out the history of Ginkgo in cities in Asia is long and, in the case of Hiroshima, poignant.

The always wondrous Carel has a post for us about mangroves and how much we need them, a group of trees sadly lacking from popular history as far as I'm aware. Perhaps in the future the global regard for these wonderful plants will grow as we continue to learn about the important roles they play in protecting us from floods and cyclones and as fish and marine life nurseries –Carel knows I'd miss them and my baby lemon sharks if we didn't have them!

red oak

Of course sometimes a tree doesn't have a personal history, a use or a significance and it just means something special to someone nonetheless; like these from Resonant Engima who really appreciates the trees, the Bluebonnets (is that a type of Lupin?) and the scenery that surround them.

If all this talk of trees, history and society wasn't enough then you need to check out some truly magnificient trees – thanks for the list ten-thousand-trees!

I hope you enjoyed this month's Festival – Festival #26 will be at Fox Haven Journal, http://foxhavenjournal.com./ Email your tree links to foxhavenjournal AT gmail DOT com by July 29th!


Jade L Blackwater said...

Thank you for a beautiful festival to kick off July - I'm off to explore the virtual woods. :)


Anonymous said...

Wow, what a great history and biology lesson! Thanks!

Granny J said...

The historical angle is an interesting one! Thank you for my listing.

Anonymous said...

Nice selection of posts! THanks for hosting.

Maureen said...

tai, you write beautifully and with such clarity -- thank you for an enlightening festival this month. I, too, am off to explore the offerings. Nice one! :-)

tai haku said...

Glad you all enjoyed it - thanks everyone!