15 of the World’s Most Famous Trees

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Martin Bodman, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0

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With their imposing size and universal symbolism, trees are the celebrities of the plant world. But some trees can boast special A-list status, whether for their massive measurements, the number of years they’ve got under their belt (and inside their trunks), or their place in history. Below, some trees worth rolling out the red carpet for.


A sprawling, seven-trunked yew in the remote village of Ashbrittle is thought to be Britain's oldest living thing. Experts say the tree, which grows in the St. John the Baptist churchyard, is 3500 to 4000 years old—meaning it was already mature when Stonehenge was built. The yew has long been beloved by locals [PDF], and some believe a pre-Christian chief may be buried beneath the mound on which it stands. Recent news reports have raised concerns the tree might be sick or dying, but according to one expert, the yew is just going through a rough patch, and will likely outlive us all.


The General Sherman Tree in California's Sequoia National Park is the largest tree, by volume, anywhere in the world. Measurements taken in 1975 marked its volume at slightly over 52,500 cubic feet, or more than half the volume of an Olympic-sized swimming pool. At about 275 feet high and 100 feet wide, Sherman's no slouch in the height or width department either, but at an estimated 2000 years old, it's not particularly ancient for a sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum can live to 3000 years and beyond). Named for Civil War General William Tecumseh Sherman, it's one of several trees in the park with monikers in honor of American military and political luminaries—neighbors include trees named General Grant, Washington, Lincoln, and Robert E. Lee.


Located 250 miles from any other tree, the Tree of Ténéré (named for the area of Niger where it grew) is thought to have been the world’s most isolated tree for much of the 20th century. A landmark on caravan routes through the region, it was sacred for locals, who admired the graceful acacia’s ability to survive in the middle of the desert. That is, until an allegedly drunk Libyan truck driver slammed into it in 1973. Its remains are now interred in a mausoleum at the Niger National Museum in Niamey, and a lonely metal sculpture stands in its place.


Said to be a branch of the sacred fig tree under which the Buddha gained enlightenment, the Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi was brought to Sri Lanka in the 3rd century BCE by the founder of an order of Buddhist nuns. The sacred city of Anuradhapura, with its beautiful complex of palaces and monasteries, then sprung up around the tree. The Ficus religiosa is said to be the oldest tree with a known planting date, and is one of the most sacred sites for Sri Lankan Buddhists, as well as Buddhists around the world. Meanwhile, a sacred fig at the Mahabodhi Temple in Bodh Gaya, India, is also said to be a direct descendant of the Buddha’s original tree.


No less a figure than Robin Hood is said to have taken shelter inside the hollow trunk of the massive Major Oak, which stands in the heart of Sherwood Forest, Nottinghamshire, England. Estimated at 800 to 1000 years old, the oak (Quercus robur) is about 33 feet around, with branches that spread up to 92 feet. In 2014, it was crowned “England’s Tree of the Year” in a public vote administered by the Woodland Trust. The tree's name comes from Major Hayman Rooke, an antiquarian who included the tree in a popular book about the oaks of Sherwood Forest published in 1790. The oak became known as “The Major's Oak,” and then simply “The Major Oak.” It has also been referred to as The Cockpen Tree, a name that dates to its days in the mid-18th century when its hollow trunk was used to pen cockerels for cock fighting.


In the two years Anne Frank spent hiding during World War II, the white horse chestnut outside her window—one of the oldest in Amsterdam—became a focus of her longing for freedom. Over the years the tree developed health problems, and was scheduled to be cut down in 2007, but neighbors and supporters rallied around it and created a foundation to provide for its care (including the creation of iron support structures meant to keep it from falling down). However, in August 2010, the tree blew down in a storm, breaking off and knocking over its iron supports. For now, only a broken stump remains on the site, although saplings germinated from the tree's chestnuts have been planted at sites around the world.


The Sunland Baobab in Modjadjiskloof, South Africa, is ancient, huge, and the only tree on this list in which you can have a drink. At about 72 feet high and 155 wide, it’s reportedly the widest in South Africa, and perhaps the widest of its species in the world. Its age is disputed: Romanian researchers estimated the baobab is about 6000 years old, while another study found that the oldest part of the tree is “only” about 1060 years old. The species naturally hollows out after about a millennium, and its current owners have created a small bar inside; you can also stay in chalets onsite. 


Hyperion is the world’s tallest known living tree, towering almost 380 feet above Redwood National and State Parks in California. The coast redwood was discovered in 2006 by a pair of amateur naturalists, who gave it its name. Its precise location is kept a secret to protect the tree. The area used to be home to thousands of redwoods of Hyperion’s size, before logging felled most of them; it’s said the tree could be even taller, were it not for woodpecker damage at the top. 


When this callery pear tree was pulled from the rubble after 9/11, it looked dead, its trunk charred and its upper branches shattered. Only one of its branches was alive. But the NYC Parks Department took a chance on the tree, and after lots of dedicated care at a Bronx nursery, it recovered. In 2010, the so-called “Survivor Tree” was planted at the National September 11 Memorial & Museum. An elm tree that survived the 1995 Oklahoma City's bombing is also known as the “Survivor Tree”; other notable trees that have survived disasters include a bonsai that survived Hiroshima and was later given to the National Arboretum in Washington, D.C. and a pine tree that survived the 2011 tsunami in Japan with the help of a metal skeleton.


An elm tree in Washington Square Park is thought to be the oldest living tree in Manhattan, but it suffers from a dark reputation: It’s known as the “Hangman’s Elm” because of its supposed association with public hangings during and after the Revolutionary War. Traitors were supposedly hung from its branches at the corner of Waverly Place and MacDougal Street, and a visiting Marquis de Lafayette is said to have witnessed the hanging of 20 highwaymen there in 1824. But there is only one verified hanging nearby: a woman named Rose Butler, convicted of arson and hanged in 1820. Historians, however, have disputed the tree’s association with hanging.


The almost 5000-year-old Methuselah, a bristlecone pine growing in California’s White Mountains, was long thought to be the oldest non-clonal tree in the world. In 2012, it was superseded by another bristlecone pine in the same area, although the latter tree lacks a colorful nickname. As with other very old trees, its location is kept a secret to protect it. 


The world’s oldest tree of any kind, and also the planet’s oldest plant, is a Norway spruce found, perhaps confusingly, in Sweden in 2004. Its root system has been growing for 9550 years, although the visible part of the tree is far younger. Unlike Methuselah and other bristlecone pines, the Norway spruce has the ability to clone itself—meaning that after one stem dies, another one springs from the same root system. The researcher who found it, Leif Kullman, named it for his dog.


Nsaum75 via Wikimedia // CC BY-SA 3.0

Thought to be the stoutest tree in the world, this Montezuma bald cypress in El Tule, Oaxaca, Mexico, is about 120 feet around. According to researchers Zsolt Debreczy and Istvan Racz [PDF], its branches extend the length of two tennis courts, and it reportedly takes 17 people holding hands with arms outstretched to encompass its girth. There has been some controversy over whether the tree is truly one organism or several, although DNA analysis has proved the former.


This 200-year-old Banyan tree in Andhra Pradesh, India, has branches that extend over five acres, and has been mentioned in some sources as the world’s biggest tree. According to a local legend, childless couples who worship at its base will conceive the following year.


David Edgar via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0 

While it might not pack the same historical punch as some of the other trees on this list, the Hardy Tree in London’s St. Pancras churchyard makes for a pretty amazing picture. The tree is named for Victorian novelist and poet Thomas Hardy, who worked as an apprentice architect before becoming a full-time writer. In the 1860s, one of Hardy’s duties included rearranging the St. Pancras churchyard burials ahead of a railway expansion that was set to cut right through the graves. Hardy moved the tombstones to the base of a nearby ash tree, whose roots have now grown in among them. He didn’t exactly relish the task, and it’s thought that an early poem of his, “The Levelled Churchyard,” was inspired by the event. Key lines include:

O passenger, pray list and catch
Our sighs and piteous groans,
Half stifled in this jumbled patch
Of wrenched memorial stones!
We late-lamented, resting here,
Are mixed to human jam,
And each to each exclaims in fear,
'I know not which I am!’

A shorter version of this story ran in 2015.

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May 14, 2016 - 2:00am
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