Around the World in 80 Trees with Jon Drori

    Trees are one of humanity’s most constant and most varied companions. They offer us sanctuary and inspiration – not to mention the raw materials for almost everything.

    In this interview, we talk to expert Jon Drori about his new book “Around the World in 80 Trees”. We discuss how Drori uses plant science to illuminate how trees play a role in every part of human life, from the romantic to the regrettable; his relationship to trees that dates back to childhood; and what happens when we forget that every aspect of human life depends on plants and trees.

    Look for “Around the World in 80 Trees” at Left Bank Books or online.

    Transcript:

    Trees. They’re all around us. They give life. They sustain life. But too often, we take them for granted.

    “I think it’s easy for people to ignore plants, because they don’t seem to move very fast. The first thing to remember is that all human life depends on plants.”

    But what happens when we forget that?

    According to CBS, “The US government says natural disasters are worsening because of climate change. The National Climate Assessment, compiled by 13 federal agencies, was released Friday. In blunt language, the report warns temperatures in the US could increase by as much as 12 degrees by the end of the century. It cites humans as the cause of more than 90% of the current warming. The report says the effects of climate change could have dire economic effects, potentially shrinking the US economy by 10%. In just the past three years, more frequent and severe storms, floods and wildfires, and droughts, have cost more than $400 billion.”

    In this conversation with plant researcher and author of Around the World in 80 Trees, Jon Drori, we discuss the relationship between humans and trees.

    “I’m a generally optimistic person, but this is a really hard problem to solve. Governments need to lead on this, gradually taking us from a high-carbon economy, high-carbon society, to one that is less so,” said Drori.

    Drori’s connection to trees dates back to childhood.

    “I think my father was a … He was a kind of stoic person, really. He didn’t really talk about his emotions very much, and he’d had quite a sad life, losing his family in Eastern Europe during the Second World War. But somehow, his emotions sometimes came out through his observation of trees and so on,” said Drori.

    And we touch on a few trees in his book, including some quite dramatic.

    In this edition of First Person One on One, presented by St. Louis County Library, the Missouri Botanical Garden, and HEC Media.

    Host:         

    We’re here with Jon Drori. Jon Drori, thank you so much for being here with us today.

    Jon: 

    Thanks for having me.

    Host: 

    We are at the Missouri Botanical Garden, which only seems fitting, because your book is about 80 trees from around the world. You dedicate this book to your parents. Tell us about your parents and where your passion for plants came from.

    Host: 

    Well, I grew up in southwest London, England, and my parents were … I suppose they came at plants in two different ways. My father, I think, had always wanted to be a botanist, but they didn’t need too many botanists when he came to England just before the Second World War, and they needed engineers, so he ended up doing that. My mother just always appreciated the beauty of plants. Between them, I think that they inculcated in my brother and me this love of plants.

    Jon:    

    I remember when I was little, my parents used to take us to Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, which was nearby, every week, probably twice a week. The way that my dad got us interested in plants was not only to tell us stories about them, but basically to feed us little bits of them. Some of those were really quite interesting, and sometimes poisonous, actually. But I remember once he gave me a lick of the latex that comes from an opium poppy when you score the seedpod. I had a lick of it, and it just made my tongue go slightly numb.

    Host: 

    No hallucinations?

    Jon:  

    No hallucinations, but the effect on my teacher when I told her was much more marked. I remember the social worker coming around to my house and my mother saying, “It’s only opium!” Then I also remember a much sadder story, actually, that my father said, “Look, I’m going to feed you a little bit of a plant.” (Jon pointing at plant.) This is dieffenbachia, which is, I think you probably call in this country, “dumb cane.” I remember my dad taking a little bit of this leaf, probably a quarter of an inch square, a tiny piece, and saying, “Look, this is going to hurt, but I need to tell you this story, and you’ll remember it all your life.”

    Jon:  

    He put it in my mouth. This plant contains a poison, which is accelerated through the membranes of your mouth by tiny little microscopic crystals, needle-like crystals inside the cells. I remember the pain of it, and he said, “This was used as a poison that was used as a punishment for enslaved people. In America,” he said, “they call it dumb cane.” I remember being absolutely horrified by this. It was his way of telling us about the horror of slavery, through a plant.

    Host: 

    So you learned about life and you learned about history from botany.

    Jon: 

    Yes. Yeah, and I think I became interested in the link between all these things that plants have used for their own purposes, their own evolution, which humans have then used.

    Host:  

    In the book, you describe trees as being tall and silent, and you relate that to your father, and the beauty to your mother. Talk about that a little bit more.

    Jon:   

    Yeah. I think my father was a … He was a kind of stoic person, really. He didn’t really talk about his emotions very much, and he’d had quite a sad life, losing his family in Eastern Europe during the Second World War. But somehow, his emotion sometimes came out through his observation of trees and so on. My mother used to be much more interested in the beauty, and he was more interested in the science, I suppose.

    Jon: 

    I remember once being in a local park. There was a beautiful cedar of Lebanon there, a fantastic tree that has evolved in very cold places, with branches that are kind of out horizontally, which is unusual for trees that cope with snow, because most conifers shrug off snow by being conical. I remember this fantastic tree. We came across it once. It had been struck by lightning and was being sawn up. It had died. I remember seeing my father crying. It was the first time, as a five or six-year-old, I’d seen either of my parents cry, I think.

    Jon:  

    I think about this person who I thought was in benign control of everything, and I realized wasn’t. It was a kind of rite of passage, actually, that you always think your parents are in control, and seeing that actually there was a greater power was a very moving thing, and something I’ve never forgotten.

    Host:  

    Your passion for plant science and botany has turned into your life’s work. You have created science documentaries for the BBC. You’re one of the former trustees of the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, where you’re from in London. Now this book. Describe to me this life’s journey, if you will.

    Jon: 

    Well, I started off in engineering, actually. I think that was because it was the sort of practical thing to do, and it’s what my father did and what my older brother did, and so I could easily find work in that. Then I joined the BBC as an electronics engineer, and realized that that wasn’t going to lead me to greasepaint, lights, and girls, and so I became a television director, making programs about science, and then gradually realized that I had more and more of an interest in the botanical side, which had been the influence from my father in the first place.

    Host: 

    While we’re on the same vein as a journey, what was the journey like? You traveled the world to experience these 80 trees. Where did it start, and what was the experience like?

    Jon: 

    Well, I was fortunate in making documentaries for the BBC. I ended up traveling a lot. Whatever the subject of those documentaries was, I always found that I was really most interested in the plants that grew in the places that I was visiting. There were just the most fantastic things that I’d never seen before, even in botanic gardens. I suppose I was inspired by the amazing diversity of plants. You know, you think you know them, and then … You know, because they don’t move so fast, people tend to ignore them, but if you really look at just how different they all are from each other, it’s this sort of fantastic alien world.

    Jon: 

    So in the book, I set out in the way that Phineas Fogg did in Around the World in 80 Days, from London, and then gradually go eastwards all the way around the world until I get to the United States, and then back to the UK again. I started off with a couple of trees that you find in England.

    Jon: 

    One of them is called leylandii. There were two trees from opposite ends of California that should never have met, certainly should never have had sex together, and they did so in a garden in Wales in the 19th century. They were brought there by a plant collector, and they were sat next to each other, and met and mated. The hybrid, the monster child, is this awful thing called leylandii. Nobody yet knows how tall they can grow, because obviously the first ones were in the 1860s or 1870s.

    Jon:  

    But by the 1990s or so, people were using leylandii as a sort of marker of territory. It’s a very British story. It’s all about privacy and marking territory, that you can make this kind of green wall to screen off the neighbors. We have laws in England about how high your fences can be on the properties, but there wasn’t any law at the time about how high your trees could grow, and so people planted these things. There were murders, there were shootings, there were … The House of Commons spent 22 and a half hours debating what to do about leylandii, because there were 18,000 simultaneous neighbor disputes going on in courts around England because of the arguments over this tree.

    Jon:  

    In the end, you wouldn’t believe, the law change was taken through the House of Lords by someone called Lady Gardner of Parkes. I mean, you couldn’t make up the name. It’s fantastic. The law change allowed antisocial behavior orders to be brought down on these trees. That law had really been originally made for people who owned really, really unpleasant dogs, those staffordshire pit bull terriers, which, when you think about it, there’s a parallel, because those are hybrids that are incredibly vigorous. You often get this what’s called hybrid vigor when you take two trees that have sort of been inbred and then you allow them to cross with each other.

    Host:

    On your journey, you came across a coco de mer. Talk about that fascinating tree for us.

    Jon:

    The coco de mer grows in the Seychelles in the Indian Ocean, and it has the heaviest seed in the world. One of those seeds can weigh 70 pounds, the size of a full suitcase. They look like the pelvis of a woman. In the 18th century, when sailors occasionally came across them, they were regarded, would you believe, as an aphrodisiac, and were incredibly valuable. They changed hands for about £400, which is worth about $150,000 in today’s money. A fantastically expensive thing to have. Actually, the rules were such that only royalty could own them for a while, because they were seen as so valuable.

    Jon:  

    You would think, you know, what would be the point of a plant having a seed that is so heavy? What we think has happened is that originally they were reasonably heavy, and something that has since died out, some sort of dinosaur thing, would have dispersed the seeds. Because what you’d want is the seeds of a tree not to compete with the mother tree. Eventually, the dinosaurs died out, and eventually these trees were just competing with each other for light, and there was nothing to take the seeds to somewhere else to stop it competing, and so the seeds just got bigger and bigger and bigger. It was all just sibling rivalry between the trees. This is called island gigantism, and you see it with Komodo dragons, you see it without other things on islands, giant tortoises in the Galapagos, where there’s no competition and the only competition is from your own species, and so just get bigger and bigger and bigger.

    Host: 

    But when they fall, they still don’t compete with the mother?

    Jon: 

    That’s right. These things plummet to the ground. You really don’t want to be camping under one of those trees. Then they put down a little shoot, but then instead of growing there, they send out an underground kind of umbilical cord maybe 15, 20 feet, and then they send down roots from there, and also grow the tree from there. They use nutrients from the seed for the first couple of years or so. Amazing piece of evolution so that it doesn’t compete with the mother tree.

    Host:

    We touched upon evolution a little bit, of trees, the fascinating evolution that takes part, and the way trees have adapted. Tell us about one of your favorite trees with this adaptive quality that they’ve evolved into.

    Jon: 

    Well, asking for a favorite tree is like asking for your favorite child.

    Host: 

    Right.

    Jon:  

    I do have a favorite child, because I’ve only got one. But you know, if you look at it from a tree’s point of view, trees have evolved either to get water or food, to defend themselves. They can’t run away when something attacks them. Some of the ways that they defend themselves have led to these wonderfully baroque kind of behaviors.

    Jon: 

    A lot of trees have saps and resins that are poisonous so that if an insect eats them, they’re discouraged. The Japanese lacquer tree, for example, has very poisonous sap, which contains a chemical which is very similar to urushiol, which is in poison ivy, which you have in this country. For thousands of years, people have found that if you take the sap of that lacquer tree and paint it onto a surface like wood or something, then it forms a layer of something very like plastic. If you could imagine how people felt seeing this material 2,000 years ago, before we had plastics … You know, this is something that is waterproof, and you can build up in layers in such a way that it shimmers in the light. An absolutely beautiful, beautiful material that humans have made this remarkable artwork out of, and yet of course the tree has evolved just to defend itself against insects.

    Jon:  

    There’s a particularly creepy side to that story, in fact, because there’s a group of northern Japanese monks who, in order to attain sort of Buddha-hood, drank this sap, or sort of … It was a diluted version of this sap with various seeds and fruits and things. They became more and more emaciated, and sort of plasticized while they were alive. It’s a pretty gruesome story. When they died, they were obviously emaciated. Their bodies were so poisonous that insects wouldn’t lay their eggs in them, and they wouldn’t decompose. And so when they were dug up a year or so later, if they hadn’t decomposed, they were said to have attained Buddha-hood. You can go to shrines in Japan nowadays and see these sort of plasticized mummies. They’ve got dark glasses on them, which is a bit…

    Host:  

    No! That’s hilarious!

    So the adaptability of trees, they create these poisons, they evolve over time. But they also attract those who they want to attract, right? There are pollinators. Tell us some examples of that.

    Jon:  

    Yeah. One of the things that trees need to do, like humans, is to have babies. One of the main ways that trees have babies is by ensuring that the male sex cells from the flower in a tree can get to the female parts of another flower somewhere else. You can either chuck out loads and loads of pollen everywhere and just hope that it gets to the place that you want. This is what trees like sycamore and willow and those sort of things do, and they give us hay fever, because they just chuck out so much pollen that it’s in the air everywhere.

    Jon:  

    You’d think, isn’t there a more efficient way? The more efficient way is to find something to do your bidding. That something is often an insect. If you can attract the insect with a nice, gaudy flower, and then give the insect some sort of reward, nectar, then the insect will come along, drink the nectar, get covered in pollen, and go off to the next flower, and the pollen goes to exactly where it needs to go to. Great.

    Jon:  

    Some trees have found a way of making the insect’s life a bit easier, which of course, if you make the insect’s life a bit easier, that means you get better pollination. The horse chestnut, which is similar to your buckeye, has a great way of doing that. They have these lovely candelabras of flowers that are made of many individual florets. Those little florets change color when they’ve already been visited. They start off yellow, and once the bee or the wasp has visited the flower, drunk the nectar, and taken the pollen, then there’s no need for the tree to have that visited again, so it changes color to red, which insects don’t see very well. This is why when you have a wasp’s nest, you put a red filter over your flashlight and deal with it at night, because they can’t see that red light. So all the red flowers all sort of just go into the background for the insect, and the yellow ones still punch out, and they see them, and those are the ones they visit.

    Host:

    Let’s talk about the intimate, the inextricably intertwined relationship between humans and plants, because so often we take for granted what they give and give and keep giving to us.

    Jon:     

    The first thing to remember is that all human life depends on plants. Either we eat plants, or the things we eat eat plants. If there were no plants, there would be no animal life, and certainly no humans. Plants are having a particularly tough time at the moment because of some of the things that human beings do. The main problem is habitat loss. That’s partly for industrialized agriculture, which is actually not always as efficient as it’s cracked up to be, partly because we’re profligate. Human consumption is driving habitat loss, so every time we use those little [inaudible 00:20:04] of milk instead of a jug, or every time we take a car trip instead of using public transportation, that is causing habitat loss somewhere in the world. In the rich countries, we tend to forget about it, because the habitat loss is mainly happening in poor places elsewhere that we don’t see. So we’re kind of exporting the problem, if you like.

    Jon:  

    But climate change is affected the whole world. The atmosphere is everybody’s. And that climate change is affecting plants to a great degree. There are two reasons for this. One is that sometimes it just becomes too hot, too dry, too wet, just too difficult for the plant to survive. That’s the kind of obvious one, but there’s a less obvious, more subtle reason, which is that plants don’t exist just on their own. They need things that come and pollinate them, they need things to disperse the seeds. Those things are insects, animals, rodents, all sorts of things that do that job for them. It’s a very complicated web.

    Jon:

    What climate change entails is that these relationships go out of kilter. The timing goes wrong, so that the trees might be in flower when the insects aren’t around, or when the seeds are there, there’s nothing there to distribute the seeds. It means that a tree might become functionally extinct. That means that it’s alive, but there’s no way it can have babies. This is why climate change is so worrying. These webs of relationships are very, very complex. We upset them at our peril.

    Host: 

    Jon, do you have hope for our future, or hope in the future generations, to take care of these plants?

    Jon:

    I’m a generally optimistic person, but this is a really hard problem to solve. Something like climate change, which is driven by too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, there’s no incentive for individuals to deal with this. This is what’s called the tragedy of the commons, where something that everyone can take from or everyone can damage without really damaging themselves very much gets overused.

    Jon:

    Actually, we need governments to do something. Governments need to lead on this, gradually taking us from a high-carbon economy, high-carbon society, to one that is less so. The way of doing that is to gradually introduce some sort of tax on carbon, which means higher gas prices, higher price, probably, for concrete, different methods of agriculture. You don’t want to do this all in one go. We don’t want to be suddenly going from where we are now to wearing hair shirts. But just gradually, that needs to be introduced.

    Jon: 

    Some countries, I’m rather proud of my own country, actually, the United Kingdom, are really doing that at some speed. So we have lots of renewable energy, we’ve got lots of incentives for companies to invest in solar and renewable energy, and so on. That’s a great way to go. I’d love to see that happening in your country, in the United States, but how optimistic am I? Well, it depends on people trusting their government to spend their tax money wisely. If you believe in small government, if that’s something that is really part of your makeup, then I can understand that that’s a difficult trust to have. So I think politicians need to earn the trust, and the public need to sort of gain the trust.

    Host:  

    What would you say to someone who doesn’t believe in climate change, or to someone who doesn’t think humans are speeding up the process?

    Jon: 

    You know, it’s a bit like asking, “Do you believe in gravity?” It’s so clear and obvious. Most people who are connected with the land in some way … If you’re living in an urban environment, you might not notice, but most people who are connected with the land, farmers or others, even in wealthy countries where we’re kind of insulated from the effects of climate change, would say something is really changing. I mean, I’m not that old, and I remember in London skating on ponds in the winter, and that’s just not happening anymore.

    Jon:  

    We can absolutely see that more carbon dioxide in the air, it’s clearly causing the greenhouse effect. It’s an obvious cause and effect. The climate is doing exactly what we would expect if you put all this carbon dioxide in the air. I think the reason that people don’t want to believe it is because … There are many things in life that we don’t want to believe, we want to ignore, because they’re really inconvenient. The changes that human beings are making to the atmosphere are certainly inconvenient, and will mean that we will, at some point, have to change some of the ways we live. The trick is to do that in a way which is gradual, over the space of maybe a decade, rather than do it all in one go. But you have to start on the journey.

    Host:

    A huge part of your book is, of course, the knowledge gained from these 80 different types of trees from around the world. But it’s so beautifully illustrated by a French artist, whose name is Lucille Clerc. Describe to me that relationship and that judgment.

    Jon:  

    Well, I think Lucille has done a most fantastic job. She’s a French artist living in London. To get the balance between images and text in a way that isn’t just a coffee table book, if you know what I mean, but is one where people will really enjoy and gain from both, so that they’re siblings, the text and the pictures, rather than one competing with the other, I think that is a difficult thing to do. I’m proud of the relationship that we had that allowed that to happen.

    Jon: 

    I would give her a sort of mood board of images that would be things that might inspire her. She’d then do a sketch. I’d say, “You know, this isn’t quite botanically right, but this is absolutely beautiful,” and then we’d work backwards and forwards that way. Being French, she had the occasional tantrum, and we’d patch that up within about an hour. You often get this with highly creative people. It was a delightful relationship, actually.

    Host:

    Jon, is there another trip around the world for you? Are there any trees that you’re just dying to experience in person?

    Jon:    

    Well, I want to do something slightly different for the next book. I’m going to go around the world in 80 plants. You know, there were 60,000 trees to choose from, and I managed to whittle it down to 80. Somehow I’ve got to choose 80 plants out of millions. I’m not quite sure how I’m going to do that. But for me, the research is wonderful, and the the idea that I can have the luxury of being curious is just a sort of beautiful thing. It’s then a bit daunting to have to sit down and actually write the bloody thing.

    Host: 

    Right. That’s the hard part, right?

    Jon: 

    Yeah, yeah.

    Host:  

    I’m just curious, from 60,000 species of trees, how did you choose just 80?

    Jon: 

    The way I chose them was to try to find trees where there was something new to say. Whether people had a background in science or history or neither of those things, they would look at it and think, “Oh, I didn’t know that. That’s an interesting angle.” I tried to find those ah-hah moments and weave them into stories. Essentially, these are 80 biographies of my favorite species, where I felt that there was something new to say.

    Host:  

    If you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be?

    Jon: 

    Do you know, there’s a tree in Namibia, in southern Africa, called the quiver tree. It’s related to the aloe vera that you probably know well from cosmetics, but this is a huge tree that grows in the most inhospitable environment, where almost nothing else will grow, and it absolutely thrives there. But the reason that I would want to be that tree … There are two reasons. One is that it’s the national tree of Namibia, so that when anyone sees it, they just smile. It’s like driving a Morris Minor. The second reason is that it’s got this kind of white, powdery surface, actually evolved to reflect ultraviolet light away from it and protect it. But people want to touch it. So the idea that being a tree that people would smile at and kind of want to stroke, I think that’s the tree I’d like to be, the quiver tree.

    Host: 

    Well, the book, Around the World in 80 Trees, was entertaining. It reads as prose, it’s beautiful, and beautifully illustrated. It’s jovial, which shows in your personality, yet serious, and I have learned so much. I just want to thank you for being here today, and thank you for talking to us.

    Jon:   

    Oh, bless you. Thank you.

    Host:     

    Thank you.

     

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