“The Architecture of Trees,” back in print after almost two decades and for the first time in English, is an enormous coffee table-sized book — part science, part art marvel.

The breadth of the book is devoted to arresting, detailed drawings of a variety of trees. But at its core, the preface acknowledges, “this book was created to be a tool and a resource in designing urban landscapes and parks.”

Authors Cesare Leonardi and Franca Stagi saw trees through the lens of their professions: landscape architect, designer and artist. They gained enough appreciation of silvics (in general, the study of how tree grows) and arboriculture to know that trees change over time and that these changes must be understood, advocated for and included in the design of urban green spaces. The nature lover and the keen observer of neighborhood trees will appreciate how the graphics and text highlight specific details. This book offers concrete words and visuals to articulate ideas about and impressions of trees that exist inside anyone.

Especially now, when the temperatures are warm and branches still bare, you can walk around your block or city park and see exactly what the authors drew, described, and promoted. Was that tree planted with thought to the human-made structures nearby? “A tree’s size and shape, the pattern of branch growth, the look of the leaves during different seasons, and the amount of shade it offers are all factors taken into account by a competent landscape architect when designing urban green space,” they write. And in that context, they ask: “Is it truly bizarre to suggest that parks ought to be designed to the scale of trees?”

The art of this book is not only its illustrations of trees but in its call to acknowledge trees as architectural anchors of a space, anchors that grow and whose silhouettes change over years, decades and centuries. Planting location, as the authors state, affects a tree’s expression of its genetics. Why is this? Because planting location influences nutrients, soil, sunlight, heat, and available water. Thus, where a tree is put down affects its form.

The art (and science) of an arborist is in her trees. Pruning cuts can maintain natural form, correct structural problems, support fruit production, or create wholly unnatural profiles that serve a particular function. Far too often, however, arborists are called to care for trees in an installation that created an instant effect, but left no room for the trees’ growth. Believe me, we understand the reason for instant impact, an instant tableau, but we cannot create a spreading oak, paper birch or hackberry if it never had the chance to expand its roots and branches into empty space.

Stagi’s text and Leonardi’s drawings carried me into a daydream of gardens and parks where trees are the artwork. The authors lived and worked in Italy, and focused their research for this book in continental Europe, making it very place-based, regarding the position of the sun and shadows and the cold-hardiness of the trees they included. This was both frustrating and engaging for me. If I could, I would have immediately booked a flight to Italy with a few of my best tree pals while the trees are still dormant, so that we could get lost in their architectural bones before spring arrived.

Though I was a bit overwhelmed by the complexity of the book’s attention to sun shadow projections for various species and frustrated that I couldn’t transfer the projections to Minnesota’s longitude and latitude, I now have a tool to think about the principle.

In an age of digitized everything I was awed by the soft texture of Leonardi’s ink drawings. Curiously, some of the drawings of trees I know intimately look nothing like what I see in Minnesota. Take the silver maple on Page 122. What was Leonardi looking at when he drew this plate?

A tree’s architecture, its silhouette, tells us what it is, what we can expect from it, and how we can manipulate its shape to serve a purpose: for fruit, for summer shade, for winter silhouettes that stop us midstep, as a hiding place from grown-ups.

Now that I have this book, I need a new living room table worthy of the book’s contents.

 

Louise Levy is an arborist in Duluth, with a deep background in traditional and urban forestry. She runs Levy Tree Care.