Put simply, humanity would not exist without trees on planet Earth. Forests cover 31 per cent of our world and are the oxygen-producing lungs without which we could not survive. They clean our air, provide shade, stem soil erosion, and filter the soil. Trees have long since been subject of worship and some of the strange trees and forests pinpointed below have great historical significance, due to their age, size, or simply through their extraordinary determination to survive. Here are the 10 strangest trees and forests in the World:
1. Fortingall Yew, UK
Yew trees (Taxus baccata) were the source of myth and legend long before the advent of Christianity, and you’ll find them planted around most churches in the UK. Thought to be the oldest organism still living in Europe, the ancient Fortingall Yew in the churchyard of the village of Fortingall in Perthshire, Scotland – the birthplace Pontius Pilate, infamous for condemning Jesus to death – is at least 2,000 years old and may even have survived as many as 4,200 Scottish winters.
The once-massive trunk was 52 feet (16 m) in girth when measured in 1769, but it has since been damaged and split. Although the yew is now protected – it is approached by engraved pathway and secured from grasping hands by a wall – bows and branches have been ripped off it over the last hundred years by souvenir hunters. What now remains of this once-monumental tree are its offshoots and some of the branches are propped up but it’s still startlingly huge; cuttings have recently been cloned so the spirit of the tree can live on in woods around Britain.
2. Tree of Life, Bahrain
A mere stripling at 430 years old, the Tree of Life is famous for that fact that it mysteriously survives in the middle of sun-scorched red desert with no apparent water source anywhere near, and enduring temperatures of up to 110°C. And not only survives but flourishes too, at 32 feet (9.75 m) high, this massive mesquite (Prosopis cineraria) stands proud atop a sandy ridge in a natural wasteland of desolate scrub. Its mere presence close to Jebel al Dukhan in Bahrain is a mystery, but it is thought that mesquite trees have extremely deep root systems that can penetrate far into the ground to find water in even the most arid of environments.
More than 50,000 people visit the Tree of Life each year and local residents believe that it marks the location of the biblical Garden of Eden. Others assert that the tree survives under the miraculous protection of Enki, the Babylonian god of water.
3. Wollemi Pines, Australia
The striking spiky-leaved dark-green Wollemi pine (Wollemia nobilis) has a strange and extraordinary history. Until recently only known from 120-million-year-old fossils but thought to be once prevalent across Australia and New Zealand, a few specimens were discovered living naturally in a deep, secluded canyon near Sydney in New South Wales in 1994. These ‘living dinosaurs’ have outlasted ice ages and survived bush fires and are now subject to a mammoth conservation effort, which has seen thousands being grown in nurseries across the world. Wollemi pines are being cultivated at Blue Mountains Botanic Garden in New South Wales and also in Kew Gardens, London.
The location of the Wollemi pines, descendants of conifers believed extinct for millions of years, is a closely guarded secret. The largest tree is nicknamed King Billy – he may be over 1,000 years old and is an incredible 130 feet (40 m) tall.
4. Tule Tree, Mexico
Detractors once claimed that the Tule Tree in Santa Maria del Tule, near Oaxaca in Mexico, was actually three trees masquerading as one, but thorough DNA testing has now confirmed that is one magnificent, ever-spreading Montezuma cypress (Taxodium mucronatum). The girth of the Tule Tree’s is 190 feet (58 m) at its thickest, with a spread of 116 feet (35 m), making it arguably the broadest – not tallest – tree in the world.
After surviving possibly 1,500 years, disaster almost befell the Tule Tree in the 1990s, when it appeared to be dying: its leaves turned brown and scorched. It was discovered that alongside traffic pollution, increased urbanization and irrigation for farming were draining the aquifers that fed the cypress. Careful watering management and a decision to move the highway has happily seen it return to full health.
5. Dragon Blood Trees, Socotra, off Somalia
The Socotra Archipelago is a remote collection of islands belonging to Yemen but off the coast of Somalia in the Indian Ocean, and is home to a strange species known as the Dragon Blood tree (Dracaena cinnabari). Looking for all the world like giant mushrooms, these trees are designed to survive in poor soils; they have bare trunks topped with stark branches supporting a dome of spiky dark-green foliage that provides shade under which seedlings can thrive, so they are often found in clusters.
Once carpeting the mountains of Socotra, by local legend Dragon Blood trees grew from blood flowing from a battle between a dragon and an elephant. In reality are descended from the same genus as lilies and tulips and are so-named for the bright-red sap they produce, which is harvested and used by local residents as a medicine, toothpaste, and a dye.
6. The Boab Prison Tree, Australia
The remote town of Derby in Western Australia boasts a Boab tree (Adansonia gregorii) so stout and bulbous around the trunk at 48 feet (14.7 m) that a minute prison cell has been carved out of it, complete with an entrance 6.5 feet (2 m) in height. The Boab Prison Tree was once known as the Hillgrove Lockup, and back in the politically incorrect 19th century it was used as an overnight lockup for Indigenous Australian criminals being walked to the local gaol for sentencing.
Thought to be over 1,500 years old, the Boab and its extravagant hair-do of branches is now fenced off to prevent curious visitors attempting to experience the claustrophobia of the tiny holding cell. Given its contentious history, the tree is registered as an Aboriginal site and has great cultural and political significance to local tribes. You can visit the Boab tree on the Windjana Gorge and Tunnel Creek tour by 4WD from Broome.
7. Baobab Trees, Madagascar
The strangely bloated baobab is native to Australia and Africa, but the giant baobab (Adansonia grandidieri) is peculiar to Madagascar, where specimens of its national tree have grown 100 feet (30 m) tall and 35 feet (11 m) in circumference. Topped with a mop of branches, their swollen, stretched trunks are actually water storage facilities to help them through the harsh drought conditions of the arid climates in which they survive. Up to 31,700 gallon (120,000 liters) of water can be stored to see them combat temperatures of up to 100°C.
The ancient forest of giant baobab trees near Morondava in Madagascar contains specimens that are up to 1,000 years old. Local villagers have adopted many of these trees and they are now fiercely protected from felling. A conservation mission has seen hundreds of seedling planted to ensure this humungous tree survives for future generations.
8. Paimpoint Forest, France
Mystical Brittany in northwestern France is a place steeped in myth and superstition–nowhere more so than the primeval deciduous forest at Paimpoint near Rennes, thought to represent the Brocéliande forest of Arturian tradition. Here under the sinister 7,500-hectare canopy, you’ll find oaks, ash, and beech bent and gnarled by age, the tomb of Merlin the wizard by the standing stones at Concoret, and the eerie Val sans Retour (Valley of no Return) at Tréhorenteuc, where Morgan le Fay reputedly imprisoned adulterous knights.
Most curious of all is the massive oak known as the Guillotin tree, believed to be 1,000 years old and with a girth of 31.5 (9.65 m). Still reaching up to 65.5 feet (20 m) high, it is virtually hollow inside and so made the perfect hiding place for Monsieur Guillotin, a priest pursued by republicans during the French Revolution of the 1790s. Legend dictates that a local spirit transformed into a giant spider and weaved a web over his hiding place, saving him from certain death.
9. Chandelier Tree, USA
The tiny hamlet of Leggett north of San Francisco in California has just one claim to fame – the vast drive-through Chandelier Tree had an archway carved through its trunk in the 1930s. Sized at six feet (1.80 m) by 6.9 feet (2.06 m), the hole fits a modern-day car comfortably; above the tunnel, the massive redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) looms 200 feet (61 m) in the air, taking its name from the spread of massive branches that fan out 100 feet (30.5 m) above the ground.
Indigenous only to a small area of country near the California ocean-side, coastal redwoods thrive in the thick summer fogs, equable year-round temperatures, and rainy winters that occur in the region. Exceptional specimens are around 2,000 years old and grow dead straight to a height of 240 feet (73 m) with average diameters of 15 feet (4.5 m), making them the world’s tallest trees, and they are named after their distinctive reddish-brown bark.
10. Anji Grand National Bamboo Forest, China
When is a tree not a tree? When it is a grass; and for a taste of absolute peace and tranquility the bamboo (Bambuseae) forests of eastern China take some beating. Sadly today they are being threatened by urban development and the local demand for bamboo – in particular for disposable chopsticks. Thankfully the forest around Anji is protected and visitors are only allowed to into a certain acreage, hemmed in on all sides by slim, straight bamboo stems stretching skywards, with the sun peering through the leaves to dapple the ground and winds whispering around the canes.
Thriving in damp conditions, bamboo is actually a grass that can grow a record-beating 24 inches (60 cm) per day, awarding it the double whammy of the biggest as well as the fastest-growing grass on the planet, able to reach 92 feet (28 m) in height.