Throughout my professional career I have heard this said so many times, all over the world and I never cease to find it upsetting.

Trees are present, in one form or another, almost everywhere in the world including hot deserts where these small islands of green offer hope of water, shade and food to animals and humans where it is most needed. So why do the peoples of the “modern” world consider them to be “just trees”. Throughout history trees have provided us with shelter, heating, transport and food for ourselves and the animals that we depend upon. So in this modern world of manmade plastic, steel and concrete, why are trees so important?

On a hot day I seek trees’ cool shade, enjoying the huge variety of birdlife that visits trees. Tree canopies attracts people in the same way, allowing them to meet many future friends they would otherwise never meet, in a way that for some reason does not happen by sitting under a commercial awning.

Trees draw creatures together in the same way. Insects, birds, large fauna and even fungi rely on these magnificent structures of nature. Over time woodlands and forests develop. Even small clumps of trees develop their own ecosystem, one relying on the other, providing shelter, shade, food, places to nest, holes for insects and mammals. Each species brings its own benefit, nutrient is supplied from excretions either by large animals seeking shade or small animals living in the canopy. In fact everything that holds this fragile world of ours together relies in no small part upon trees.

All things in the world require water in order to exist, so do trees. It is fascinating to learn how trees aid themselves by causing dew to condense and drip to roots as hot days turn into cold nights in one natural system. Trees make their own compost, shedding old leaf growth. This layer retains moisture within the soil, then fungi and insects breakdown the residue, providing nutrients and more surface soil for – another tree. Moisture builds in the soil as trees catch water run-off, and roots break the rock allowing rain to soak into the soil and leach down into the water-table.

The only species not to bring any benefit is ours. It seems that we have forgotten just how important trees are and imagine that plastic is more useful to the modern world. This would mean that more than two-thirds of all cancer-fighting drugs would no longer be available, just to name two medical remedies produced by trees.

Indigenous Maltese trees have vital importance within the ecology of the islands, and this should not be underestimated. Malta and Gozo have already had many trees removed and replaced with concrete. More trees will produce more life, more shade, cooler summers, more water, and more soil. Ascension Island used to be a barren volcanic rock until one peak was planted with trees.

Flimkien għal Ambjent Aħjar trustees: Ing. Paul Cardona, Mr. Anthony Guillaumier, Sir Martin Laing, Marquis de Piro Now it is a self-sustaining rainforest in the middle of the Pacific in the regions where planting took place.

So is it “just a tree, a thing that gets in the way of concrete?” or one of nature’s most diverse, useful and life-giving creations, important to the planet but even more important to Malta as these islands face hotter and drier climates.

Ian Lansley

Ian Lansley is a professional arboricultural consultant and lecturer. Having visited Malta regularly for over a decade he now consults on the island which he has come to consider his second home.