Heritage Trees of Penang—Kew Bulletin review

H Trees reprint 2015As Head of the Arboretum at Kew where I curate the outdoor temperate tree collections in the UK, this work is not the normal subject of a book that you will find in my library at home, but is a valuable new addition to my shelves that I have since used as reference. On my summer vacation to Florida in 2011, I visited the Fairchild Botanic Garden in Miami where I was introduced to a remarkable flowering tropical tree; the cannonball tree, Couroupita guianensis. I was fascinated by the beautiful, yet bizarre orange-pink flowers that graced the trunk of this wonderful tree. For my own interest I needed more information on this curiosity and, as it is a tropical tree, I didn’t have a single book to reference until “The Heritage Trees of Penang” arrived on my desk for review. As I quickly flicked and browsed through the beautifully illustrated pages of this 397 page hardback book, I was immediately greeted by four pages on the cannonball tree and was elated. There it was, exactly as I had seen it growing outdoors in the arboretum of the Fairchild Botanic Garden, and all the information and images that I needed. Oh how I wish I could grow this tree outdoors in the arboretum at Kew.

The title of this book is clearly what the book is about; the heritage trees of Penang, but what constitutes a heritage tree? Old, tall, wide, rare, weird and wonderful, and trees with a cultural significance and Penang is home to many of these. In fact Penang is actually named after the pinang, the betel nut palm, Areca catechu.

Around 200 of Penang’s heritage trees are featured in this book; a great many of them are historic with cultural significance and are categorised into 6 chapters under the following groups: street trees, garden trees, sacred trees, village trees, forest trees, and coastal and riverside trees. The Introduction introduces the reader to the island’s history and defines what a heritage tree is. It is very informative with lots of detail on the roles that trees play in religion, small communities, medicine, food, fruit and timber and as a commercial crop on the 299 km² island. The geography of the island’s forest is clearly illustrated with good maps showing the topography and elevations, and the ecology and botanical importance of the forest trees is explained beautifully. There are clearly five different categories of natural forest on the island: the inland forests below 500 metres, those above 500 metres, secondary growth forests, mangroves and seashores.

Once we go into the 6 chapters of where the heritage trees can be found, each species is laid out in alphabetical order, with the family and common names if there is more than one. A description of the tree’s cultivation and where it can be found, together with any special stories that are linked to the plant are followed by any uses on the island. Clear botanical notes describe each plant which will make this a useful identification book for anyone, amateur or professional, visiting Penang and needing a book to name the 200 species.

There are 1,200 colour photographs and 72 original watercolours of a good, useful size, some being a portrait full page, that clearly help to illustrate each tree in this book, for identification purposes and to show their links to the heritage. Both the scientific and general index work well and will help the reader to quickly navigate their way around the book.

This book has given a temperate tree person a huge temptation to visit Penang in February which is recommended in the book as the best time to see Penang’s trees in flower and to observe some of the remarkable trees featured in this book, especially the avenue of cannonball trees near the main entrance of the Botanic Gardens.

Tony Kirkham (edited by A. Marshall)
KEW BULLETIN VOL. 67: 575 Y 576 (2012)