A few months ago, I went to the botanical garden down the road from my home in Montréal, expecting to spend a nice afternoon walking among fields and exotic trees. Instead, it began to pour rain, and I took shelter in the tea house in the middle of the Japanese garden, watching the rain play on bamboo. During a break from the onslaught, I took a walk around the bonsai trees, and identified one of my favorite species, gingkos. I pointed them out to my girlfriend, proud of being able to identify them. A couple of hours later, walking down my street, she pointed to a tree. “Isn’t that a gingko?” It was. I was dumfounded—there was a mature tree on my doorstep that I had never noticed, but which I had walked by hundreds of times.
Trees are funny that way. The New York Times has written a few articles recently, branding our inability to notice and identify trees “tree blindness“. For most people, a tree is a tree is a tree. Unfortunately, this is also true of science fiction and fantasy authors. For every Tolkien out there describing Ents using dozens of different types of trees, there’s another with your standard collection of primary school garden varieties. A good rule for judging the realism of a fantasy author would be to judge the number of tree species, or the ratio of species to bioregions.