Artists and botanists alike have been inspired by trees for centuries. 'Remarkable Trees' features a range of plants from the Kew archives. Take a look at some of these fascinating specimens in our photo essay.
Coconut, Cocos nucifera
(pp83 – 85)
In the late thirteenth century the famed traveller Marco Polo encountered coconuts and summed them up very accurately: ‘The Indian nuts also grow here, of the size of a man’s head, containing an edible substance that is sweet and pleasant to the taste, and white as milk. The cavity of this pulp is filled with a liquor clear as water, cool, and better flavoured and more delicate than wine or any kind of drink whatever.’ Many sailors and travellers of the eighteenth century grew to admire and rely on the coconut in their explorations.
Olive, Olea europaea
According to Greek myth, in the dispute between Athena and Poseidon to decide who would be the patron deity of Greece’s principal city, the goddess planted an olive tree sapling. Athena’s gift was so useful to the inhabitants that she was the victor, and hence the city became known as Athens. So highly esteemed was the olive that its oil was presented as a prize to the winning athletes in the ancient Athenian games, and an olive tree still grows on the Acropolis as a symbol of this foundation story.
Manchineel, Hippomane mancinella
Encounters with this species are mentioned by several famous explorers. The eighteenth-century naturalist Mark Catesby recorded the agonies he suffered after the juice of the tree got into his eyes, and that he was ‘two days totally deprived of sight’. Manchineel’s notorious reputation has even spread into literature – references are found in Madame Bovary and The Swiss Family Robinson, among others, while it also appears in operas, including Giacomo Meyerbeer’s L’Africaine, where it is chosen as a means of suicide by the heroine Sélika.
Durian, Durio zibethinus
Known in its native Southeast Asia as the ‘King of Fruits’, and famed more widely as the world’s most malodorous fruit, the durian has gained a notorious reputation. Because of its overpowering smell it is banned from several airlines, hotels and the public transport system in Singapore. Eating the ripe fruits has been likened to consuming custard in an open sewer. But while its smell may be evocative of sewage, the fruit’s creamy flesh is regarded as a delicacy. Mark Twain when travelling in the region was told that ‘if you could hold your nose until the fruit was in your mouth a sacred joy would suffuse you from head to foot’. The flavour has been variously described as reminiscent of caramel, almonds or bananas, while for the naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace it called to mind cream cheese, onion sauce and even sherry. Opinion is sharply divided – in some people the durian provokes a deep disgust, in others a high regard.