Strange Trees

What are the strangest trees in the world? A new book attempts to answer that question using stunning illustrations and surprising facts to introduce us to some of the planet's true arboreal wonders. Sure it might be a "children's book"—but what does that even mean anymore, anyway?

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Did you know that there are trees that walk, trees that hold reservoirs of water, and even trees that shed exploding fruit? French author Bernadette Pourquié did, and she's written a beautiful and imaginative picture book called Strange Trees: And the Stories Behind Them that explains everything you need to know about some of nature's oddest creations. We're not quite sure what the best part is, but it's either the stunning illustrations by Cécile Gambini, which highlight the fantastical qualities of each tree, or the fact that it's in first person. Delightful.

Illustration of the very important Cocoa Tree — without it we would have no chocolate!
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We talked to Pourquié and Gambini about Strange Trees.

What inspired you to write a children's book about strange trees?

Bernadette Pourquié: I started out with a completely different project. I was going to write a work of fiction about completely imaginary trees. These made-up trees had to be strange, extraordinary, like something out of a fairy tale. As I was thinking about this project and doing research, I discovered there are many extraordinary trees around the world that really do exist! I decided I'd much rather write about real trees instead.

The Strangler Fig Tree, feared by all other trees
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Did you know much about trees before you began this project?

BP: Not so much, I admit…. But I have been fond of trees for quite a long time, and I spent a lot of time researching the book—partly because I was having so much fun learning all of this! The more I read, the more of these unusual trees I discovered.

The small but resilient Dwarf Willow Tree, which survives in arctic tundra.

Why did you decide to write from the trees' perspective?

BP: It was a suggestion from my publisher. I wanted to write this nonfiction book a bit like a story, and so the publisher asked me to consider writing in the first person. It was a great suggestion! It really helped to give life and personality to my "characters": trees are living beings, after all.

The Bullhorn Tree, well-armed against any assailant thanks to sharp thorns and fire ants.
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Cécile, I assume you looked at photos of each tree before you illustrated it. In what ways did you decide to change them as you illustrated them?

CG: My changes were only in the service of adding more poetry. We wanted Strange Trees to be not only a documentary book, but also a book that evokes the feelings people have when they experience nature.

The Forty-Coin Tree, a brilliant gold species that has been around for 240 million years!
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Have you seen any of these trees in person? Are there any that you hope to see?

BP: I haven't seen all of them in person yet. I especially hope to see the Sausage Tree and the Rainbow Tree, with all its beautiful colors.

CG: Yes, I was inspired by the sequoias near San Francisco, which I remember very vividly, and by the Gingko Biloba. I once spent a year living in [the Northern French town of] Troyes at a place called The Gingko Studios, across from an enormous gingko that I watched change colors with the seasons. [I hope to see] the Rainbow Tree!

The ancient Giant Sequoia, which grows tall and wide in its three-thousand-year life span.
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What do you hope children will take away from your book?

BP: I hope they will be motivated to learn more about nature—that's the first step towards wanting to protect nature—and maybe decide to create a herbarium, like I did as a child. Mostly I just hope that they will have fun with this book!

CG: The desire to really look at nature around them and, for those who live in a city, the freedom to let their imaginations roam.

And now, we show you a few of our favorite strange trees!

The Rain Tree is not here to be your umbrella. In fact, when precipitation begins, these rebels (also known as Saman trees) will fold their leaves downward, making sure that any unsuspecting animals seeking shelter under their canopy will get totally soaked! "Thanks a lot, Rain Tree"—Wet Hedgehog.

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Are you ready to be spooked? The Ghost Tree, or davidia involucrata, has "ghost" or false leaves under its foliage that appear to be wispy white floating shapes. Coming upon a Davidia tree alone at night = creepy!

A tree that stores water in its trunk? That would be the Bottle Tree, or brachychiton rupestris! The bottom part of it's trunk is swollen because it absorbs extra rainwater to save up in the case of a drought. Very organized, Bottle Tree!

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Growing up to 250 feet tall with vibrantly colored bark, the Rainbow Tree seems right out of a fairy tale! Not only does the Mindanao gum tree look stunning, but it also commonly used to make paper. Beautiful and functional, then!

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The fruit of the Breadfruit Tree, or artocarpus altilis, tastes like freshly baked bread when cooked! We wouldn't mind having one of these in our backyard!

Native to the African savannah, the Sausage Tree is nicknamed for its cylindrical fruit. The Sausage Tree's fruit tastes nothing like meat—in fact, it's poisonous when it is young and green! This tree, the scientific name of which is kigelia africana, can be planted anywhere with a savannah climate, and its flowers are considered to be good luck!

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A tree that has roots on top? Yep, that would be the Upside Down Tree, or the Grandidier's baobab. Spiny branches reach up toward the sky like roots, and the wide trunk of the Upside Down Tree becomes hollow with age, becoming a shelter for people and animals alike.

What's the best way for a plant to reproduce? The Dynamite Tree is going with exploding fruit. Seeds detach from the fruit of this tree, called the Hura crepitans, and explode when they hit the ground, scattering seed pods across a one hundred yard radius. Not only is it armed with fruit-grenades, the Dynamite Tree also features poisonous sap. Charming.

Want to take a stroll with a tree? OK, the Walking Tree probably can't keep up with you, but it does "walk" into the ocean by continuously putting down new roots that absorb the salty water. As old roots dry out, new ones take their place moving forward in the direction of the water. Their pace may be slow, but these red mangrove trees are important because they protect the coastline from cyclones and tsunamis.

The Chewing Gum Tree is just what it sounds like — a tree that produces chewing gum! The sap of this Sapodilla tree, native to Mexico, has a rubbery texture and was the world's first chewing gum. These days, gum manufacturers use a petroleum-based recipe, but the sap of the Chewing Gum Tree will always be the original.

Strange Trees: And the Stories Behind Them by Bernadette Pourquié, Illustrated by Cécile Gambini, published by Princeton Architectural Press. Available on amazon.com, $12.

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