The best books about the cultural importance of trees

Anna Lewington Author Of Birch
By Anna Lewington

Who am I?

Trees have been important to me throughout my life. I was lucky to grow up surrounded by ancient woodland in the English countryside. When most of that woodland was felled in the 1970s it made me think deeply about the importance of plants to people. I was privileged later, to spend time with indigenous peoples in Latin America learning about what trees and plants mean to them. I now write about how plants are perceived and used. After several children's books I wrote Plants For People which describes the plants we use in our daily lives and Ancient Trees which celebrates tree species that live for over a thousand years.

I wrote...


By Anna Lewington,

Book cover of Birch

What is my book about?

Birch explores the cultural and environmental significance of birch trees across the northern hemisphere. Versatile and supremely useful, birches have played an important part in shaping both the natural environment and the culture of millions of people around the world. 

Beginning with an overview of the taxonomy and natural history of the genera, this well-illustrated book focuses on the multiple uses people have made of almost every part of these trees since ancient times - from their tough, waterproof bark, used for everything from basketry to medicines, to their sap, timber, roots, and leaves. It outlines the rich folklore and ancient beliefs associated with the trees and looks too at what the future may hold in store.

The books I picked & why

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Ladders to Heaven

By Mike Shanahan,

Book cover of Ladders to Heaven

Why this book?

This is a brilliant book. Mike Shanahan has done a wonderful job, weaving his meticulous research (he has a doctorate in rainforest ecology) into a highly engaging description of the importance of fig trees around the world, both in terms of their vital ecological functions and their importance to people.

It’s full of fascinating information: from the role figs have played in world religions and human cultures, to the raw materials they supply and the fact that they support more of the world’s animal and bird species than any other trees. 

Illustrated with beautiful black & white drawings, it explains why fig trees are so important to life on earth and how, with their extraordinary capacity to restore degraded lands, they can help create a better future for us all.

Around the World in 80 Trees

By Jonathan Drori,

Book cover of Around the World in 80 Trees

Why this book?

I like this book because, while drawing on a number of other sources on this theme, it introduces us, in relatively few words per chapter, to the importance of a range of tree species to people, in a great variety of ways. 

Selecting 80 species - from England’s ‘London Plane’ to the ‘Sugar Maple’ of Canada - the book takes us on a journey around the world, by geographical region, summarizing key botanical information about each one and giving us examples of its significance or uses, past and/or present, often surprising or little known.

Each chapter has been beautifully illustrated by Lucille Clerk.

Just the Tonic: A Natural History of Tonic Water

By Mark Nesbitt, Kim Walker,

Book cover of Just the Tonic: A Natural History of Tonic Water

Why this book?

This is a fabulous book, a highly authoritative account of the extraordinary story of one of the world’s best-known drinks.  

Beautifully illustrated with archival posters, photographs, and botanical art throughout, it describes the fascinating history of tonic water, taking us from the 17thC discovery by Europeans of quinine, the anti-malarial extract obtained from the bark of South American Cinchona trees to the present day, detailing the history of carbonated water and its pairing with gin along the way.  

Meticulously researched and based on original source material and the unrivalled botanical collections held by the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, this book does a magnificent job of combining scientific facts with stunning visual imagery.

The Land Where Lemons Grow: The Story of Italy and Its Citrus Fruit

By Helena Attlee,

Book cover of The Land Where Lemons Grow: The Story of Italy and Its Citrus Fruit

Why this book?

I fell in love with this book after just a few pages. It’s a beautifully descriptive and colourful account of the significance of citrus fruit in Italy, from the days of the first introduction of the citron to Calabria in the 1st Century to today’s cultivation of blood oranges on the plains beneath Mount Etna.   

Written with great charm and humour, the author weaves this part-travelogue effortlessly in and out of history and horticulture with stories and recipes as we learn fascinating facts about the citron (still essential, for example, for the celebration of the Sukkoth festival by Lubavitcher Jews), the different varieties of lemon and orange (including Bergamot, essential for eau de cologne and Earl Grey tea) and other types of citrus in the regions they are grown.


By Fred Hageneder,

Book cover of Yew

Why this book?

Yew is packed with fascinating information about these mysterious, exceptionally long-lived trees.

Fred Hageneder has spent years studying every aspect of the yew and his book presents that knowledge in a compact, highly readable form. The botany, ecological interactions, and extraordinary longevity of yew trees are examined, as well as their unique uses, past and present, including the historic supply of timber for longbows and, more recently alkaloids for modern medicine. The tree's symbolism, sacred status, and spiritual significance to people since the prehistoric past are also described.

Richly illustrated throughout and meticulously referenced, this book is essential reading for anyone interested in the cultural and natural history of the yew tree.

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