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15 Weird & Wonderful Tree Facts

Trees are one of the oldest living species on earth. They’ve had millions of years to spread across the globe, adapting to their environment along the way, and creating a diverse array of species with charming quirks and characteristics.

Trees can be impressive, bizarre, hilarious, and sometimes a little frightening. Here are our top 15 weird and wonderful tree facts, to give you a new appreciation for our leafy companions.

1. There’s a palm tree that commits suicide

The Tahina spectablilis is a palm tree discovered in Madagascar in 2008. The discovery was significant because the tree represents a new genus, prompting protective measures from researchers.

After analysing the trunk, researchers discovered that the tree spends decades growing to around 20 meters tall, and once happy with its height and maturity, explodes with nectar-rich, fruiting blossoms. This bursting of flowers depletes the tree’s nutrients, leaving few resources to hold itself upright, until it eventually collapses. 

The Tahina spectablilis literally flowers itself to death1.

2. The most dangerous tree burns skin, and strips paint from cars

Manchineel tree

The manchineel tree. Image from Industry Tap

The manchineel tree grows across the tropical region of the Americas, and within its bark, leaves, and fruit is a milk-white sap that can burn skin, singe your eyes, and strip paint from cars. If you’re brave enough to eat its apple-like fruits, your stomach can severely bleed, your airways can close up, and you may go into shock. The Spanish call this tree the “little apple of death,” presumably after some poor devil ate one of its fruits.

The machineel is so toxic that the Caribs—an indigenous American Indian tribe—used it to poison the water supply of their enemies. It’s one of the most toxic trees in the world3.

3. Trees talk to each other

Millions of us use messaging apps to communicate with each other, gossiping, joking, and wooing our way to friendship. Trees also talk to each other, but while we have the World Wide Web, they have the Wood Wide Web—a fungal network (mycorrhizal network) that grows around and inside their roots, connecting them to each other. When a tree is being attacked by predators, it can release chemical signals through the network, which warns neighbours to raise their defences. They also send distress signals during drought and spells of disease, which prompts other trees to change their behaviour.

In addition to communicating with each other, trees use the network to share food, and trees such as the black walnut even use it to poison their rivals4.

4. Trees “hire” bodyguards

Red Weaver Ant

The weaver ant

When a tree is battling through a dry season, and finds itself set upon by mischievous leaf-eaters, it goes through a bodyguard “hiring” process to protect itself. It does this by producing additional sticky sweet sap to attract tiny insects, who suck up the sap and poop it out as honeydew. This attracts ants, who use the honeydew to harvest their herds of bugs, and also happen to bite off leaf-eating caterpillars as they go, making them the tree’s personal bodyguards5.

5. The earth was over 4 billion years old before trees arrived

It’s hard to imagine the earth without trees or plants, but for the first 4 billion years, our planet was hot, barren, and subject to a barrage of meteor strikes and volcanic eruptions, hindering the emergence of plantlife. It wasn’t until 470 million years ago that the first mosses and liverworts evolved, and another 85 million years before the emergence of the first tree2.

6. The smallest tree is the length of a small thumb

Dwarf willow

The dwarf willow

The smallest tree in the world is thought to be the dwarf willow, which stands between 1-6cm in height, and looks like a deflated Christmas bauble. It’s found on both sides of the North Atlantic, growing in high tundra and rocky moorland6.

7. The tallest tree would tower over the Story Bridge

The tallest tree is a 115.7 meter monster called Hyperion, named after the child of Greek Titans Gaia (Earth) and Uranus (Sky). The tree is a coast redwood, and is located in the Redwood National and State Parks in California. To protect the tree from probing tourists, its exact location isn’t advertised7.

If Hyperion happened to be growing on the peninsula of Kangaroo Point, it would tower over the Story Bridge by 40 meters.

8. The world’s oldest living tree is almost 5,000 years old

Bristlecone Pine

The Methuselah Grove, home to the world’s oldest tree

The world’s oldest tree is a Great Basin bristlecone pine called Methuselah, which has been alive for 4,852 years. Around the time the tree was born, the first known Semitic language was being recorded in Mesopotamia, which makes Methuselah as old as recorded language8.

As with the world’s tallest tree Hyperion, the location of Methuselah is kept secret to protect it from damage.

9. A group of aspens are the world’s oldest and heaviest living organism

80,000 years ago, right about the time our species was migrating out of Africa to escape drought, the Pando aspen grove started to grow in Utah. It became the world’s oldest and heaviest living organism, connected through a mammoth network of roots, and weighing around 6,600 tons9.

Sadly, the grove is thought to be dying, although scientists aren’t sure why.

10. Trees can attack

You don’t have to be a marauding white wizard to be on the receiving end of a tree attack. When a tree is being preyed upon by a hungry caterpillar, it can attack the insect indirectly by releasing chemicals that attract birds, who promptly consume them10.

11. Some trees explode

Sandbox tree

The sandbox tree

If you’re in the vicinity of a fruiting Amazonian sandbox tree, you’d be wise to move away. When the tree’s fruits are ripe, they can explode and fire seeds outwards at a phenomenal speed—up to 257kph. Catch one of those and you’ll know about it11.

The tree’s trunk is also covered with sharp spikes to protect it from climbers, leading to the nickname “monkey no-climb.” 

12. The stoutest tree would take you 30 seconds to walk around

Tree of Tule

The Tree of Tule

The world’s stoutest tree is thought to be the Tree of Tule in the Oaxacan town of Santa María del Tule. Its trunk has a circumference of 42 meters12, which would take the average person about 30 seconds to walk around. To cover the base of the tree, roughly 105 men would need to stand shoulder-to-shoulder.

13. More than half of tree species are unique to one country

58% of tree species are unique to a single country. If you wanted to visit every known species of tree on the planet, you’d rack up a lot of air miles.

Countries with the most country-endemic tree species include Australia, Brazil, China, as well as formerly-isolated islands such as Madagascar, Papua New Guinea, and Indonesia13.

14. Trees lower stress

Humans have spent most of their evolution outside, creating a soothing feeling of affinity with the outdoors—known as biophilia. Spending time in nature has shown to reduce stress and anxiety, improve your mood, and make you happier14. If you’re feeling a little down lately, you’d do well to go for a hike in the forest.

15. Trees reduce crime

If an urban area has lots of trees, crime such as graffiti, vandalism, littering, and even domestic violence is reduced. Planting more trees may be an effective way to make a city safer, and more pleasant to live in15.

References

  1. John Dransfield, 2008, Suicidal Palm Debuts in Madagascar, Sciencemag
  2. Tree, Wikipedia
  3. Manchineel, Wikipedia
  4. 2018, How trees secretly talk to each other, BBC
  5. Amina Khan, 2013, Trees recruit army of ants to defend against invading leaf-eaters, Los Angeles Times
  6. Salix herbacea, Wikipedia
  7. Hyperion (tree), Wikipedia
  8. Akkadian language, Wikipedia
  9. Pando (tree), Wikipedia
  10. 30 Nov 8 Fascinating Facts about Trees, Daryl’s Tree Care & Surgery
  11. Hura crepitans, Wikipedia
  12. Árbol del Tule, Wikipedia
  13. E. Beech, M. Rivers, S. Oldfield, and P.P Smith, 2017, GlobalTreeSearch: The first complete global database of tree species and country distributions, Journal of Sustainable Forestry
  14. Spend Time in Nature to Reduce Stress and Anxiety, Heart.org
  15. Russell McLendon, 2020, 15 Astounding Facts About Trees, Treehugger
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