7 of the World’s Most Famous Trees

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

With their imposing size and symbolic weight, trees are already the plant world’s celebrities. 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. 

1. The Ashbrittle Yew 

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.

2. General Sherman

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 General Grant, Washington, Lincoln, and Robert E. Lee.

California's also home to the tallest tree in the world, a redwood named Hyperion, which has been measured at nearly 380 feet and is hiding somewhere in the Redwood National Park; the park keeps its precise location a secret to preserve it.

3. Tree of Ténéré

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.

4. Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi

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 BC 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.

5. Major Oak

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.

6. Anne Frank’s Tree

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.

7. The Hardy Tree

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!’

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May 4, 2015 - 6:00pm
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