“Trees can live without us, but we cannot live without them,” write Diane Cook and Len Jenshel. Supported by a National Geographic Society grant, the husband- and-wife team spent two years traveling the world creating portraits of Wise Trees (Abrams, $40). The result is a breathtaking photographic monument to more than fifty ancient, majestic specimens. There are those whose rooted presence has made deeply influential marks upon human culture: Siddhartha’s Bodhi, Isaac Newton’s apple tree, and the Derby Boab brought by aboriginal peoples from Africa to Australia some 1,500 years ago. Others quietly bear witness to horrific chapters of human history: the Hiroshima bonsai and Nagasaki survivor trees, a Southern Live Oak that served as Texan gallows, and a massive Monkeypod against which children were beaten to death in the Killing Fields of Cambodia. Still other specimens exhibit inspiring impassiveness to human concerns and epochs: the California Redwoods, the “Tomb Raider” strangler fig of Angkor Wat, and the Magna Carta yew thought to predate the birth of Christ. And then there are those bewildering beauties made fragile by human interference: a vandalized California Sequoia, and “Pando,” the eighty thousand year old clonal colony of aspen trunks in Fishlake Forest, Utah.
Believe it or not, German literary great Johann von Goethe was also a pioneering student of the natural world, discovering homology in the plant kingdom, and coining the term “morphology.” It was neither Faust nor Young Werther, but his science that Goethe considered his greatest legacy. The Metamorphosis Of Plants (MIT Press, $21.95) is the slim scientific treatise in which this legacy is contained. When it was published in 1790, Goethe lamented the publishing technologies of the time, which prevented him from providing evidence of his observations. More than two centuries later, Seattle University historian Gordon Miller has carried out Goethe’s legwork, tracking down the particular plants of which Goethe wrote, laboriously photographing them, and presenting them with an enthusiastic introduction that presents Goethe’s ecology as important for today.
Anna Pavord’s beautiful Bulb (Octopus, $39.99) will give you new insight into these plants and inspire you to do some serious digging. Though not a book you would take out to the garden, this volume provides both encyclopedic notes on different bulbs, corms, and tubers, including an insightful introduction with a brief history, and a substantial and instructive “How to Grow Bulbs” section. Full of lush, full-color photos, this is the perfect gift for any gardener, weathered or novice.