In honor of Arbor Day, we bring you lifesaving wood, the truth about cork, and a refuge for swamped spiders. Who knew trees had so many great stories to tell?
1. Plant Your Own Holiday
Newspaper editor Julius Sterling Morton wasn’t afraid to think big. In 1855, he started building a modest four-room house in Nebraska City, Neb., that later expanded into a 52-room White House lookalike. But it was only after his mansion was finished that Morton realized he had a problem. His spacious new digs sat on a desolate prairie, which made it hard to attract neighbors.
So Morton went to work planting trees. Lots of them. To gin up a little help, the newspaperman proposed a holiday on which all Nebraskans would join in. The State Board of Agriculture loved the idea, and on April 10, 1872, Nebraskans planted more than a million trees! The tradition became so popular that in 1885, Nebraska made Arbor Day a legal holiday, even tweaking the date to April 26, Morton’s birthday. Soon the rest of the country was celebrating Morton’s brainchild, and today, tree planting days are celebrated around the world.
Morton’s effort earned him and his family some good karma too. He went on to serve as secretary of agriculture under Grover Cleveland, and his son, Joy, founded the Morton Salt Company.
2. The Wood That Fights Fire
Alex Eben Meyer
As gold-crazed settlers flocked to the Bay Area in the 19th century, they needed lumber to build their homes and mines. And what better way to get a lot of wood at once than toppling an enormous redwood? Little did they know the wood had a greater legacy in store.
In April 1906, San Francisco awoke to a major earthquake. As if the rocking buildings weren’t bad enough, residents were soon battling massive fires that threatened to consume the city. But the city didn’t go up in smoke for one reason: redwoods.
Though the fire spread for three days, a curious thing happened when it hit a building made from the mighty tree. While not totally fireproof, the redwood’s low resin content and porous grain allow it to take on moisture, which makes it far more flame-resistant than woods like pine. As one reporter noted, “[I]n all principal directions, the fire was finally stopped in the very midst of frame redwood buildings.”
3. Should You Put a Cork in It?
If the “it” in question is wine, absolutely! Cork is the most environmentally friendly way to seal a bottle. While aluminum and synthetics can be recycled, that process requires a lot of energy. Harvesting cork, on the other hand, is much greener and doesn’t begin until after a cork oak tree’s 25th birthday. Workmen carefully peel off the outer layers of bark using special axes, making sure not to harm the trees so that the cork can be manually harvested again after a decade of rest. As the cork regenerates, the trees continue to play a valuable role in the forest’s ecosystem by helping to clean the air. If you compare the impact, an aluminum wine cap generates 24 times more emissions than natural cork.
4. A Real Corker!
For years, herders and swagmen in the Australian Outback had to fight a particularly pesky foe: the blowfly. While harmless, the flies had an irritating habit of swarming around people’s faces. That is, until the Australians began fighting back. Before the days of bug spray, Aussies used a bit of string to dangle small pieces of cork from the brims of their hats. The swaying wood was just enough to keep the blowflies at bay, and the absurd headwear joined the Foster’s can and Paul Hogan as an unmistakable icon of Australian culture.
5. Cork by the Numbers
13 billion: Annual production of wine corks, mostly from the Iberian Peninsula
30,000: Number of people whose jobs rely on harvesting and processing cork
9 to 12 years: Time it takes a cork oak to regrow its cork following a harvest
6. Bugging Out with Osage Oranges
Osage orange fruit are mildly poisonous, so you won’t want to chomp through their tough, brainlike skin. But you might want to toss one under your bed. These “hedge apples” have historically been thought to ward off spiders. And while there’s no evidence that the fruit sends arachnids running, studies have shown that osage oil does repel flies and cockroaches.
7. Kapok Trees Float Your Boat
The thorny kapok may appear prickly, but it’s got a soft side too. The tropical tree’s seed pods are packed with a buoyant, water-resistant fiber that’s just one-eighth the weight of cotton. Before the advent of synthetic foams, kapok fibers were a crucial ingredient in all-natural life preservers, including the ones used by G.I.s in World War II.
8. The Magic of Holly Wood
You were right to hide those slightly toxic holly berries from your children and pets, but you might want to make the tree available to your local Scotsman. Holly was among the original woods placed on a lathe to make Great Highland bagpipes. Although it fell out of fashion in the late 18th century, you can still pay the piper with a holly branch.
9. Not Getting Your Goat
Spanish explorers planted sweet Valencia oranges on the Caribbean island of Curaçao hoping they’d found a citrus paradise. Instead, the poor soil and climate yielded the laraha, a bitter orange-like fruit that even goats refused to eat. Curaçao’s residents stood by their gross fruit, though. A little experimentation showed that once dried and soaked in alcohol, the laraha made the pleasant citrus liqueur drinkers know as Curaçao.
10. Bart Simpson’s Favorite Tree
Every prepubescent hellion has the same favorite species of tree, the horse chestnut. Why? Horse chestnuts’ round, sturdy hulls make them the perfect slingshot ammunition. But nature’s pellets have the potential for good too. When they’re not bombarding playmates, the nuts can be used to make a solution for whitening linens and removing spots.
11. Tangled Webs
UK Department for International Development
Spiders build the best tree forts! During the summer of 2010, parts of Pakistan received 10 years’ worth of rainfall in a single week. As the monsoon waters rose, millions of local spiders decamped to higher ground in the surrounding trees and went about their normal business of spinning webs. When the flood finally receded, the ghostly, web-swaddled trees stayed behind.
Luckily for the Pakistanis, these trees weren’t just an awesome photo opportunity. Visiting health authorities noted that the webs helped reduce mosquito populations despite all the stagnant water in the area. Apparently, the bugs were as drawn in by the webs as we are!
12. The Bodhi Tree
Alex Eben Meyer
The Bodhi Tree, located in the northern Indian state of Bihar, is sacred to Buddhists, who believe that the Buddha achieved enlightenment in the shade of this heart-shaped fig tree. But since waiting for enlightenment is a tall order, many Buddhists request something faster. And more tangible. If you see strings dangling from the Bodhi’s branches, each strand represents a pilgrim’s wish.
13. The Holy Thorn
Alex Eben Meyer
In Glastonbury, Somerset, England, grows the Holy Thorn, a hawthorn tree that allegedly sprang from the staff of Saint Joseph of Arimathea, when he struck his stick against the ground during a visit in the first century CE. While the common hawthorn blooms just once a year, this tree blooms a second time near the winter solstice, a rebirth that makes it a favorite of pagans and devout Christians alike.
Alex Eben Meyer
Charles Darwin studied this small, thorny tree, located in Argentina, that was said to be the embodiment and altar of the great god Walleechu. Worshipers who make offerings by pouring liquor into a hole at the tree’s base or blowing cigar smoke toward Walleechu’s branches are supposedly blessed with prosperity and horses that never tire out. Conestoga drivers, take note.
15. France’s Coolest Treehouse/Church
Herve Champollionakg Images
Locals in the French village of Allouville-Bellefosse swear that William the Conqueror prayed at the base of this legendary tree before heading out on his famous conquest. While the tree isn’t quite that old, it’s no spring chicken. At 800 years, it’s France’s oldest known tree. It almost met a grim fate when lightning struck it in the 17th century, gutting its trunk. Not wanting to let a little lightning ruin a perfectly good tree, two monks began sprucing up the hollowed interior. Before long, they’d built a full shrine to the Virgin Mary, complete with a small chapel. The tree became known as Le Chene Chapelle, the Chapel Oak. Later additions include a second chapel and an external staircase.
When churches fell on the chopping block during the French Revolution, the tree stopped being a chapel and became a “Temple of Reason.” Efforts to maintain the aging tree have given it something of a Tim Burton feel. Shingles now cover parts of the trunk where the bark has fallen off. Poles prop up parts of the tree that might otherwise tumble. Despite the increasingly tenuous construction, worshipers still gather in the chapel for Mass twice a year!
16. How to Live Forever
At the ripe old age of 4,800, Methuselah, a Great Basin bristlecone pine, may just be the world’s oldest living thing. What’s its secret? The bristlecone’s dense, hard wood is nearly impenetrable for insects and fungi, so there’s no chance of rotting. And the inhospitable mountaintops it lives on scare away wimpier plants that would compete for resources.
So where can you see Methuselah? You can’t. Its exact location in California’s Inyo National Forest is kept secret to keep vandals at bay. In other words, Methuselah’s been placed in the forestry equivalent of the witness protection program!
BONUS: 8 Fun Facts about Trees
Madagascar’s raffia palm has the world’s longest leaves: Each one measures more than 70 feet!
Two regiments of American foresters served in France during World War I to supply the Allies with necessary lumber.
When Canada adopted its flag in 1964, 2136 of the submitted designs contained a maple leaf; another 389 featured beavers.
The Korowai people of Papua live in 130-foot-high treehouses as protection from a neighboring tribe of headhunters.
Although it’s known as the Spruce Goose, the Hughes H-4 Hercules was mostly made of birch.
Before becoming a famous showbiz cowboy, Clint Eastwood worked as a lumberjack.
Cones of the Coulter pine can be up to 12 inches long and weigh five pounds! Workers in Coulter pine groves are told to wear hard hats.
When Johnny “Appleseed” Chapman wasn’t planting trees, he was a missionary of the Swedenborgian Church.
This article originally appeared in mental_floss magazine. You can get a free issue here.