Seeing the trees for the forest

Usually this phrase is used in reverse and figuratively, but this time I mean it like this and literally. The thing is that when I moved to Australia, I realized I can’t name most of the trees. As I love trees & plants and would want to teach all about them to our kids, this was not exactly an optimal situation. I could usually spot a tree belonging to the Eucalyptus genus and identify a handful – like birch, which I’d rather not see growing here as I’m allergic to birch pollen – but most were a complete mystery to call by anything more specific than “tree”.

So I set about to educate myself, and our kids, about the trees here. After some research, I concluded that the best book to do that with would be CSIRO’s publication Forest Trees of Australia by Boland et al. This is one massive text; at over 700 pages and 2+ kilograms in weight, it’s hardly a field guide – but it is, from what I can tell anyway, an extremely comprehensive text about trees in Australia. It begins with a short introduction covering the trees, climate, topography, soils, microbes, fire effects and other factors affecting trees here.

The bulk of the text consists of species descriptions, over 300 of them, each species with two pages. The left-hand page contains the common names and botanical names, related species, climate where the species lives, map of its distribution, descriptions of the bark, leaves, cones, fruits, wood etc – interestingly including points about forestry uses, such as durability, wood density and common uses. The page on the right-hand side has a dozen or so pictures of the tree bark, leaves, fruits, flowers etc. Unfortunately the vast majority of the photos in the book are black-and-white, but the photos are extremely clear and come with size guides.

Towards the end of the book there is an extensive glossary and the usual references & an index. Due to its heft, it’s a book that I will likely never read every page of, but it is absolutely fascinating reading. For example, I did not know that the Mountain Ash (Eucalyptus regnans) here is, at up to 100m in height, the second-largest tree species in the world, only exceeded in height by the California redwoods.

Another revelation that the book brought with it is that there are lots of different species of trees here, many of which look very similar to each other. This makes accurate identification somewhat painful. There are a total of approximately 30 tree species in Finland – over here, just the eucalyptus genus has over 700 species. Given time, I am sure I will learn to identify some of the most common ones, but all of them? Forget it. Never going to happen. While a more compact field guide may come in handy at some point (the most compact of them all, the Leafsnap app by Columbia University, doesn’t really work well here), the Forest Trees of Australia is an indispensable reference loaded with fascinating information.

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