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The Secret Life of Trees: How They Live and Why They Matter

Nature Writing
A classic natural history book about trees, in the mould of Rackham's `History of the Countryside'

By: Colin Tudge

452 pages, Illus

Penguin Books

Paperback | Dec 2006 | #160135 | ISBN: 0141012935
Availability: Usually dispatched within 48 hours
NHBS Price: £12.99 $17/€15 approx
Hardback | Jan 2006 | #155236 | ISBN: 0713996986
Out of Print Details

About this book

Colin Tudge has a fine reputation as a natural history writer who can take complicated ideas and express them with clearness and passion. His new book on trees looks set to become a classic reference, in the mould of Oliver Rackham's `History of the Countryside.'

Here is Tudge from the introduction:

At Boscobel in Shropshire in the English Midlands stands the Royal Oak, where the provisional King Charles II is alleged to have hidden from Cromwell's men after the Battle of Worcester. And why not? All this happened only about three and a half centuries ago (1651) and oaks may live for two or three times as long as that. A yew I met in a churchyard in Scotland has a label suggesting that the young Pontius Pilate may once have sat in its shade - "and wondered what the future held". Conceivably: at about the time that Jesus was born Pilate's father was a soldier in those parts - and by then that yew was already mature.

Many a redwood still standing tall in California was ancient by the time Columbus first made Europe aware that the Americas exist. And some of California's pines germinated at about the time that human beings invented writing and so are as old as all of written history. Some living trees have seen the rise and fall of entire civilisations.

Some redwoods and Douglas firs and eucalypts are as tall as a perfectly respectable skyscraper, and there's an extraordinary banyan in Calcutta that would cover a football field. Many are host to so many other creatures that each is a city: as cosmopolitan as Delhi or New York and far more populous than either. When the Amazon is in flood - deep enough to submerge well-grown trees entirely - the fish feed on fruit, and the river dolphins race through the upper branches of what should be the canopy. I once found myself in an old kapok tree in Costa Rica in which biologists had thus far listed more that 4000 different species of other creatures.

Yet a tree cannot afford simply to serve as someone else's monument and feeding ground. From the moment the seed falls on to the forest floor (or the sand of the savannah, or a fissure in some mountain crag, or a glacier's edge or a lakeside or a tropical seashore) to the moment of its final demise, perhaps a thousand years later, the tree must fight its corner, a creature like all the rest.

The human debt to trees is absolute. Our ancestors, somewhere in Africa, came to the ground when the climate dried up and the trees retreated. Archaeologists speak of the stone ages, and the bronze age, the iron age and the steam age, and now we have the age of nuclear power and space and IT. But every age has been a wood age - ours at least as much as any in the past; and perhaps, in the decades to come, even more so.

Yet timber is not the end of it. Trees are the source of drugs and unguents and incense and poisons, of resins and varnishes and industrial oils, glues and dyes and paints, gums of many kinds including chewing gum, a host of fibres - and of course, perhaps above all these days, for paper. All that, plus a thousand (at least) kinds of fruits and nuts and a surprising amount of fodder for animals. As a final bonus, the wooden husks of many a fruit make instant household pots and drums and ornaments. In short, without trees, our species would not have come into being at all.

This book is mainly about the science of trees. The last chapter is about the uses we make of them, and what they do for us, and why for reasons that are purely material they must be conserved: our survival depends on them. But most of this book is not about their usefulness, but about what they are: how they came into being; what kinds there are and where they live and why; how they live, competing and co-operating. The more we know about them, the more trees seem like the key to the world's survival.

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Colin Tudge started his first tree nursery in his garden aged 11, marking his life-long interest in trees. Always interested in plants and animals, he studied zoology at Cambridge and then began writing about science, first as features editor at the New Scientist and then as a documentary maker for the BBC. Now a full-time writer, he appears regularly as a public speaker, particularly for the British Council and is a Fellow of the Linnean Society of London and visiting Research Fellow at the Centre of Philosophy at the London School of Economics. His books include The Variety of Life and So Shall We Reap. The Secret Life of Trees brings together Colin Tudge's knowledge of trees and his fascination with them, built up from trips to the rainforest in Costa Rica, Panama and Brazil, to his time India, New Zealand, China, the United States ! and his own back garden. He is unable to choose a favourite tree, believing that variety's the thing.

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