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The Architecture of Trees

Brian Albers

The diversity of tree species in tropical forests is mind-boggling. Costa Rica alone hosts nearly 2,000 types of trees!

A perennial challenge for tropical biologists like me is how to identify the tree species we study.

Traditional plant taxonomy — the science of categorizing and naming living things — is based on a classification system that uses the shape and color of their flowers, fruits and leaves to give each species a unique, two-word Latin name.

But, often, trees don’t have accessible flowers, fruits or leaves. One classification alternative is the approach of tree architecture.

This concept was developed in the 1970s by a trio of botanists who recognized that tropical trees, like buildings, have distinctive forms.

These botanists grew a variety of trees from seeds, and then categorized the trees from aspects of growth. Do limbs grow from the base or throughout the trunk? Is growth continuous or seasonal? And so on. Then, they combined these tree forms to just 23 “architectural models,” and labelled each one after famous botanists, naming the first three models after themselves.

The system was wildly attractive, because it simplified the huge diversity of tropical forests. But its application is limited since trees conform to their model for only a short time. As they grow, tree shapes change because of external factors like shade and wind. So today, botanists don’t rely on tree architecture as a way to classify trees. But it has advanced our theoretical understanding of trees, especially how trees repair themselves after damage.

On your next walk, look at the structure of the trees you pass. You probably won’t classify them by their form, but it’s another way to see and appreciate trees.

Dr. Nalini Nadkarni is an emeritus professor of both The Evergreen State College and the University of Utah, one of the world’s leading ecologists and a popular science communicator. Dr. Nadkarni’s research and public engagement work is supported by the National Geographic Society and the National Science Foundation. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. @nalininadkarni
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