Trees are some of the most important organisms on the planet, creating great habitats for wildlife and also providing humans with vital products such as timber, food and medicines. Trees even help to combat climate change, pollution and flooding, and have been shown to have positive effects on human health and wellbeing.
It’s often the animal world that gets all the attention, so we thought it was time to give plants a bit more love by celebrating ten of ARKive’s top trees from around the world. Meet some of the oldest, largest, rarest, weirdest and most magnificent species on Earth…
Ancient mountain dweller
The bristlecone pine is one of the world’s longest-lived organisms, with one individual, known as ‘Methuselah’, estimated to be nearly 5,000 years old. This hardy species inhabits harsh mountainous environments in California, Nevada and Utah, and has an extremely slow growth rate. Typically quite gnarled and stunted in appearance, the bristlecone pine is named for the prickles on the surface of its dark purple female cones.
Although not the world’s tallest tree, in terms of sheer volume the giant sequoia is one of the largest living organisms on the planet. Reaching up to 95 metres in height and 11 metres in diameter, with bark up to 60 centimetres thick, this giant tree can live for over 3,000 years. Found on the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California, the giant sequoia is resistant to fire, and regular wildfires help to remove competing plants as well as allowing this species’ cones to open.
Closely related to the giant sequoia, the coast redwood is the tallest tree on Earth, growing to a staggering 115 metres in height, with a trunk up to 9 metres in diameter. This towering giant is confined to foggy coastal areas in southwest Oregon and northwest California, USA. Unfortunately, the coast redwood has been highly prized for its timber and an estimated 95% of the original redwood forest has been cut down.
Sustainable nut producer
Native to South America, the brazil-nut tree is one of the most economically important plants in the Amazon. Its famous seeds grow inside a large, round fruit, arranged like the segments of an orange, and are harvested for food and oil. The brazil-nut tree depends on agoutis to gnaw through its tough fruit and release the seeds, and on certain bee species to pollinate its flowers. The bees in turn depend on a certain type of orchid to survive. The brazil-nut tree can therefore only produce seeds in undisturbed forest, making it a model for generating a sustainable income from tropical forests.
The loneliest palm is one of the rarest plants in the world, with only one wild individual remaining. This lonely tree grows in the Curepipe Botanical Garden in Mauritius, where it has survived for over 50 years. Although it flowers and fruits regularly, the fruits of this individual are sterile as the male flowers open before the female flowers, preventing pollination. Attempts have been made to clone this rare palm, but the clones have so far failed to survive.
The Wollemi pine has been called a ‘living fossil’, as it represents the only remaining member of an ancient group of plants. Previously believed to be extinct, the Wollemi pine was rediscovered in Australia in 1994, where it is known from just two sites in Wollemi National Park, New South Wales. This prehistoric species is one of the world’s rarest plants, but is now being grown in cultivation and planted in gardens and parks around the world, helping to support its conservation.
Found in southwest Madagascar, Grandidier’s baobab is the largest and most famous of the island’s baobab trees. Sometimes known as the ‘upside-down tree’, it is an imposing species with a massive cylindrical trunk, which is used to store water. Its spectacular white flowers are said to smell of sour watermelon, and are pollinated by nocturnal mammals. Sadly, this iconic tree is under threat from the conversion of its forest habitat into open agricultural land.
Here be dragons!
One of the most distinctive plants on the island of Socotra, the evocatively named dragon’s blood tree has a truly bizarre appearance, with an upturned, densely packed crown which has the shape of an upside-down umbrella. Morning mists condense on the waxy leaves and are channelled down the trunk to the roots, while the dense crown shades the ground below and reduces evaporation. This strange tree is named for its dark red resin, known as ‘dragon’s blood’, which has been a highly prized substance since ancient times.
Renowned worldwide for its medicinal properties, the maidenhair tree (Gingko biloba) is the sole survivor of an ancient group of trees dating back to before the time of the dinosaurs. This unique species has been used in traditional medicines for hundreds of years, and is still popular in herbal remedies today. Although the maidenhair tree is widely planted around the world, its wild populations appear to be confined to Mount Xitianmu in Zhejiang, China. However, it is unclear whether these individuals are truly wild or are descendents from temple gardens
From little acorns…
Oak trees are surrounded by much folklore and are well-loved symbols of strength. Native to most of Europe and parts of Asia, the sessile oak is so-named because its acorns are not supported on stalks. Like other oaks, the sessile oak supports an amazing variety of wildlife and is a habitat in its own right. The open canopy of this species allows light to reach the ground, favouring the growth of a range of ground plants, while its acorns provide food for many animal species.
These are just some of the world’s weird and wonderful trees – you can discover more and view photos of tree species from around the world on ARKive.
You can also find out more about tree conservation at Fauna & Flora International’s Global Trees Campaign and Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.
Do you have a favourite tree, or one that means something special to you? Let us know!
Liz Shaw, ARKive Text Author