Christina Hardyment talks to Angela Palmer about her epic installation of rainforest giants outside the Oxford University Museum of Natural History.

Everything I do is made possible by collaboration," says Angela Palmer, creator of one of the most startling art installations ever seen in Oxford. Her Ghost Forest is made up of the colossal stumps and labyrinthine root boles of 10 mighty rainforest trees. The denya, the biggest, weighs 20 tons and is 300 years old. First seen in Trafalgar Square in November 2009, then in Copenhagen during the December 2009 UN Climate Change Conference, these spectacular tropical ambassadors are now rearing up to dramatic effect in front of the University's Museum of Natural History.

They are grouped around the museum's own 33-metre-high wellingtonia. Alive, all would have dwarfed it. Some were double its height; at over 60 metres, they would also have towered over Nelson's Column. The absent upper trunks and branches symbolise the loss, at devastating speed, of what Palmer calls "the world's lungs": the global canopy of rainforest trees whose role in climate control and biodiversity we are only just beginning to grasp. "When I saw the exposed roots I thought they looked like the nerve endings of the planet – that this is what we are ripping wholesale from the Earth."

It's drizzling when we meet. Small and jaunty, Palmer clambers up, under and around the weatherworn hulks. She opens my eyes to how the fist-like roots of the denya still grip rocks that they groped hundreds of years ago. She takes me into the cave formed by the arched buttress of a dahoma to shelter from the rain and enjoy the scent of the wood, then points out how the hyedua has changed colour now that it is wet. "As an artist, my main objective is to arouse curiosity," she says. "I want to stir up emotions to get people thinking, questioning and challenging the status quo. I want to disrupt the senses. We all know rainforests are being destroyed, we see it on television, but reality is sanitised by the screen."

When we go into the museum itself, I realise just how appropriate their present resting place is. The shinbone of a cetiosaurus uncannily echoes the smooth weatherworn swirl of the buttress of a celtis trunk. Unless we act fast, these timber dinosaurs will be as extinct as the museum's mighty skeletons of tyrannosaurus rex, iguanadon and megalosaurus.

Inside, it seems that everyone knows Palmer. Over coffee in the staff room, she reveals the multifarious nature of her indebtedness to the University. born in Aberdeen, she grew up in Edinburgh. she did one year of art school, then dropped out and went into journalism as a Thomson trainee. soon writing for many national broadsheets, she became editor of Elle in 1992. she and her husband Jeremy Palmer moved to Hong Kong in 1994, where drawing and painting came to the fore as she brought up their children.

In 2000, after they had returned to england and settled in Oxford, Palmer completed her degree course at the University's Ruskin School of Drawing & Fine Art, often visiting the natural history Museum to draw. "I've always been fascinated by bones," she says. "I used to collect them as a child. They nicknamed me 'bones' at school." she devised fantastical animals from drawings of skeletal parts in the museum and sketched corpses in the University Medical School. after Oxford, she did an MA at the Royal College of Art and, inspired by Dorothy Hodgkin's horizontally layered drawings of the penicillin molecule, made a succession of CT scans of an egyptian child mummy in the Ashmolean, then drew them onto multiple sheets of glass to recreate the child three-dimensionally. soon she was attracted to projects that increased awareness of environmental issues. "I had a dream that I visited the most polluted and the cleanest places in the world wearing identical white, floating, Armani-style outfits, as blank canvases to capture the extreme atmospheric conditions of these locations. and I did, though the outfits were actually from Zara!"

It was a chance meeting with andrew Mitchell of the Global Canopy Programme that made Palmer turn to trees. when he told her that a tropical forest the size of a football pitch is being destroyed every four seconds, she realised the vital importance of making people fully understand the damage caused by this rape of tropical timber. "Few people realise that deforestation releases more carbon dioxide than the world's entire transport system – all the cars, planes, trains and ships put together. and of course carbon emissions aren't the only problems with deforestation: more than 1.6 billion people rely on forest resources for their livelihoods; over half the world's animal and plant species are found in rainforests – they regulate the climate and they absorb up to 10 per cent of man's carbon emissions each year. when the rainforests are gone, they are gone."

She had another dream. why not bring actual rainforest trees to london? "I talked about it to Antony Gormley at an exeter College dinner and he said that the logistics of bringing a rainforest to europe were impossible... and I got the bit between my teeth." having been offered sites for the installation by both the Greater london authority and Copenhagen, it was natural to turn to Oxford for help. Its environmental Change Institute has a good track record of encouraging projects to raise awareness of climate issues and the Oxford Centre for Tropical Forests draws on the expertise of both academics and those involved in the timber industry.

She was soon talking to Vadvinder Malhi, Professor of Ecosystem Science – an expert on interactions between tropical ecosystems and the global atmosphere – and to Dr William Hawthorne of Oxford's department of Plant Sciences, who has spent more than 20 years working in the rainforests of Ghana, which now has an improved record for sustainable forestry. Simon Fineman, head of the environmentally conscientious Oxfordshire company Timbmet, put her in touch with Ghanaian timber company John Bitar.

Once in a Bitar concession in Ghana, she saw the instant impact of the massive buttressed trunks and tangled root boles of naturally fallen trees. botanist ntim Gyakari, co-author with hawthorne of a book on Ghana's rainforest trees, helped her to identify suitable specimens. Muttering her motto, "what can be imagined can be achieved," she set about organising transport. Months of negotiations and fundraising later, the trees were on the move, and she was consulting Professor Yiannis Ventikos and Bob Scott of the Department of Engineering Science about the plinths required to support them. When the 10 thoroughly hosed-down specimens arrived at Tilbury Docks, Professor Ventikos photographed and measured their footprints to plan their safe display on industrial-grade modular platforms – no mean task given their size.

But hasn't this all involved huge carbon emissions? "The carbon footprint of moving the trees was carefully offset by providing Ghanaian families with energy-efficient stoves that use less wood as fuel, and the concrete plinths are made from recycled material from a blast furnace and will be recycled after the exhibition is over," Palmer explains. "And the reception of the Ghost Forest project has been extraordinary." A media report published by The Good Agency suggested that worldwide media coverage has reached an audience of millions of people.

So is Palmer's installation art or is it propaganda? As Tate Modern testifies, it's now old-fashioned to object to the medium having a message. "Art doesn't have to be a sterile protest," says art critic Jonathan Jones. "It can be a way of showing history. It can report on reality. The beholder can supply the rage."

Moreover, a dissertation exploring reactions to Ghost Forest by Rhodes Scholar Bronwyn Tarr (Hertford, 2009 and Junior Martin Fellow at the University's Martin School) has shown that it works as both. Surprise, sadness, shock, horror and anger were among the responses she noted. Some people were fascinated by the technical and scientific aspects, some by the ethical and aesthetic. What struck people most was their size. "They really are staggering," said one visitor. "I like things that make us feel small... things like storms, anything that reminds us that we are not the kings of creation, we are actually quite vulnerable."

"The stumps being here... has made me think maybe I should start looking at the trees around the city a bit more," said another. "Hopefully, when I walk down the street tomorrow, instead of thinking, 'I'm on a street full of buildings with a couple of trees in the way,' I'll say, 'I'm in a forest with a couple of buildings in the way'."

What excites Tarr most about Ghost Forest, both as an artistic project and as a subject for research, is the way that it raises people's environmental awareness through their own personal reactions. "They educate themselves through a personal mix of aesthetic, fact-based and emotional appreciation," she says. "Some see the trees as beautiful in themselves, some ponder their message."

She was soon talking to Vadvinder Malhi, Professor of Ecosystem Science – an expert on interactions between tropical ecosystems and the global atmosphere – and to Dr William Hawthorne of Oxford's department of Plant Sciences, who has spent more than 20 years working in the rainforests of Ghana, which now has an improved record for sustainable forestry. Simon Fineman, head of the environmentally conscientious Oxfordshire company Timbmet, put her in touch with Ghanaian timber company John Bitar.

Once in a Bitar concession in Ghana, she saw the instant impact of the massive buttressed trunks and tangled root boles of naturally fallen trees. botanist ntim Gyakari, co-author with hawthorne of a book on Ghana's rainforest trees, helped her to identify suitable specimens. Muttering her motto, "what can be imagined can be achieved," she set about organising transport. Months of negotiations and fundraising later, the trees were on the move, and she was consulting Professor Yiannis Ventikos and Bob Scott of the Department of Engineering Science about the plinths required to support them. When the 10 thoroughly hosed-down specimens arrived at Tilbury Docks, Professor Ventikos photographed and measured their footprints to plan their safe display on industrial-grade modular platforms – no mean task given their size.

But hasn't this all involved huge carbon emissions? "The carbon footprint of moving the trees was carefully offset by providing Ghanaian families with energy-efficient stoves that use less wood as fuel, and the concrete plinths are made from recycled material from a blast furnace and will be recycled after the exhibition is over," Palmer explains. "And the reception of the Ghost Forest project has been extraordinary." A media report published by The Good Agency suggested that worldwide media coverage has reached an audience of millions of people.

So is Palmer's installation art or is it propaganda? As Tate Modern testifies, it's now old-fashioned to object to the medium having a message. "Art doesn't have to be a sterile protest," says art critic Jonathan Jones. "It can be a way of showing history. It can report on reality. The beholder can supply the rage."

Moreover, a dissertation exploring reactions to Ghost Forest by Rhodes Scholar Bronwyn Tarr (Hertford, 2009 and Junior Martin Fellow at the University's Martin School) has shown that it works as both. Surprise, sadness, shock, horror and anger were among the responses she noted. Some people were fascinated by the technical and scientific aspects, some by the ethical and aesthetic. What struck people most was their size. "They really are staggering," said one visitor. "I like things that make us feel small... things like storms, anything that reminds us that we are not the kings of creation, we are actually quite vulnerable."

"The stumps being here... has made me think maybe I should start looking at the trees around the city a bit more," said another. "Hopefully, when I walk down the street tomorrow, instead of thinking, 'I'm on a street full of buildings with a couple of trees in the way,' I'll say, 'I'm in a forest with a couple of buildings in the way'."

What excites Tarr most about Ghost Forest, both as an artistic project and as a subject for research, is the way that it raises people's environmental awareness through their own personal reactions. "They educate themselves through a personal mix of aesthetic, fact-based and emotional appreciation," she says. "Some see the trees as beautiful in themselves, some ponder their message."

What is the future for the trees? "They're staying in front of the University Museum for a year," says Palmer. "I'm launching a six-month programme called 'I Touched the Rainforest' on 12 February 2011 to coincide with the UN International Year of Forests. I'm hoping to get enough sponsorship to bring every school child in Oxfordshire to actually touch them, and in co-operation with the Environmental Change Institute, the Global Canopy Programme and other organisations, we're planning a whole series of events." Palmer wants everyone who "meets" the trees to understand their incredible importance to both climate-balance and biodiversity. The events and exhibitions will emphasise the usefulness for nutrition and medical science of the trees and the insects, flora and fauna associated with them. "Canopy Meg" Lowman, pioneer of rainforest exploration, will travel from the US to hold a rainforest insect banquet amid the trees on March 27.

But is it all too little too late? The scale of Palmer's undertaking is daunting. "It's never too late," she says. "What can be imagined can be achieved." Her optimism is reflected in the trees themselves: they are finding renewed life and news of the project has reached 173 million people. In Oxford, indigenous fungi, mosses, insects and the occasional, resourceful dandelion are finding them hospitable. She has had several offers for the trees post-Oxford, including their exhibition at the International Edinburgh Festival. All, however, is dependent on funds, and she may consider selling them as an installation.

What next for Palmer? She's dreaming again, this time of an environmental project in the Arctic Circle involving melting blocks of ice. No doubt Oxford expertise on temperature control will be part of her creative equation.