Ancient and huge trees
The root net of a toppled conifer, photographed with a very wide-angled lens, Stora Sjöfallet National Park, Lapland, Sweden. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Fungi, growing on the trunk of a burned forest tree, Silent Valley National Park, Kerala, India. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
For some reason or other, this stump of a giant tree has been allowed to remain in the middle of agricultural land near Ohakune, New Zealand. The stump ’lives’ on, as several bushes have taken root in its top. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The Chinese Hemlock Nature Trail leads through montane monsoon forest in Taipingshan National Forest, eastern Taiwan. In this picture, the trail is passing beneath the roots of an ancient tree. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Old and giant trees appeal to most people. Standing under a huge, gnarled trunk, thousands of years old, makes the majority of us feel very humble indeed.
In the old days, however, most people had an entirely different view of these giant beings. Everywhere on the planet, huge tracts of thousand-year-old forests were ruthlessly cut down by the lumber industry, or to make way for farming or urbanization.
Even today, there are people who do not appreciate old trees. Danish author Thorkild Bjørnvig (1918-2004) once told me about an incident, which took place on his residential island, Samsø. One of the residents in the local community lived in a farmhouse, in front of which grew an enormous, old horsechestnut tree (Aesculus hippocastanum). One day, Bjørnvig noticed that the tree had disappeared, and he asked the owner why. This was his answer: “For a long time, that tree has been a thorn in my flesh!”
Araucariaceae (araucaria family)
Grand forests of pehuén (Araucaria araucana), or Chilean monkey-puzzle tree, are ubiquitous in Parque Nacional Conguillio, and a few other places in the Andes. Elsewhere, the species is endangered. This species and other Chilean wildlife are described on the page Travel episodes – Chile 2011: The white forest.
Pehuén, Parque Nacional Conguillio, Chile. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This gigantic pehuén, called Araucaria Madre (‘Mother of monkey-puzzle trees’), is about 1,800 years old, 50 m tall, and has a diameter of c. 2.1 m. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The kauri tree (Agathis australis), or, to be more precise, the southern kauri tree, is restricted to the northernmost part of New Zealand’s North Island. This species is among the world’s largest trees, growing to over 50 m tall, with trunk girths up to 16 m. Although their age is difficult to estimate, it is believed that they may live for more than 2,000 years. They are out of an ancient group of trees, which first appeared during the Jurassic period (190 to 135 million years ago).
Today, the largest kauri is found in Waipoua Forest. It is called Tane Mahuta (‘Lord of the Forest’), which refers to Tane, the Maori god of trees and birds. The height of this majestic tree is c. 46 m, its girth is about 15.5 m, and its volume is estimated at 516 m3. In the past, even larger specimens were known. The largest on record, called The Great Ghost, was about 8.5 m in diameter, with a girth of c. 26.9 m. It was consumed by fire around 1890.
When the Maoris settled in New Zealand about 700 years ago, small-scale usage of kauri began. The timber was utilized to construct houses and boats, and for carving. Kauri trees exude a gum through cracks in the trunks, and, over the years, large quantities are built up in the soil beneath the trees. The Maoris used this gum to start fires, and also for chewing, after it had been soaked in water and mixed with the milky juice of common sow-thistle (Sonchus oleraceus).
A full-scale destruction of these magnificent forests began with the arrival of Europeans in the 1700s and 1800s. Sailors found that the trunks of young kauri were ideal for ships’ masts and spars, and settlers utilized the high-quality timber of mature trees for construction. Kauri gum was also used at a large scale to manufacture varnishes and other products. The gum was obtained through digging or, more destructively, by bleeding live trees. Large areas of kauri forest were also cleared for farmland until as late as the mid-1900s.
It has been estimated that kauri forests once covered between 10,000 and 15,000 km2. Today, a tiny fraction, c. 70 km2, exists, corresponding to 0.5% of the original extent.
Now, the kauri is facing a new threat, called kauri dieback. This disease is caused by a fungus, Phytophthora agathidicida, which attacks the trees through their shallow root system, eventually causing their death. There is no known cure for this disease, and its spread can only be reduced by avoiding trampling near kauri roots. (Source: doc.govt.nz/nature/native-plants/kauri)
The largest known kauri is Tane Mahuta (‘Lord of the Forest’), which may be more than 1,500 years old. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Betulaceae (birch family)
The common alder (Alnus glutinosa) lives in symbiosis with a nitrogen-fixing actinomycete bacterium, Frankia alni. These bacteria cause the growth of coral-like nodules on the roots of the trees, inside which thick-walled cells are formed, housing the bacteria. Protected here against the harmful oxygen of the air, the bacteria change nitrogen into nitrates, which can be utilized by the alder trees. This is the reason that these trees are able to grow in oxygen-poor soils. The nitrates enrich the soil, making it possible for other plants to grow in these poor soils.
Lars Skipper, admiring an ancient common alder, growing at the shore of Lake Mossø, Jutland, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
European hazel (Corylus avellana) is found in the major part of Europe, eastwards to the Ural Mountains, Caucasus, and the Alborz Mountains of northern Iran. Usually, this species is a large shrub to about 10 m tall, sometimes to 15 m, typically with many slender trunks clustered together. It prefers sunny places, and specimens in forests are often low and stunted. The oval nut, to 2 cm long, is partly covered by a leafy involucre, called the husk.
The scientific name avellana was given by Swedish naturalist Carolus Linnaeus, also known as Carl von Linné (1707-1778), who took this name from De historia stirpium commentarii insignes, published by German physician and botanist Leonhard Fuchs (1501-1566) in 1542, in which it was described as Avellana nux sylvestris (‘forest nut of Avella’, a town in southern Italy). In turn, that appellation was taken from Naturalis Historia, by Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder (23-79 A.D.).
You may read about the succession of wild growths of hazel on the page Nature Reserve Vorsø: Expanding wilderness.
Numerous trunks of an old common hazel, Zealand, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Casuarinaceae (ironwood family)
Ironwood trees, genus Casuarina, are native to South and Southeast Asia, Australia, and Oceania. Several species have been planted, or accidentally introduced, in many other places, and they are often regarded as invasive plants. Casuarina equisetifolia, in the United States called Australian pine, is a pest in Florida. The specific name equisetifolia means ‘with foliage like horsetail’, referring to the articulate leaves.
Casuarina equisetifolia has been extensively planted on Cretan beaches. This ancient specimen was observed on Preveli Beach. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Combretaceae (leadwood family)
Terminalia is a genus of large trees, counting about 100 species, which are found in tropical and subtropical regions around the world. The generic name is from the Latin terminus (‘end’), referring to the fact that the leaves appear at the very tips of the shoots. A selection of pictures, depicting the glorious winter foliage of the Indian almond (Terminalia catappa) may be seen on the page Autumn.
Terminalia myriocarpa, often called East Indian almond, can grow to a height of 40 m, with a diameter up to 4 m, and with huge buttresses, sometimes to 5 m tall. This tree is distributed from eastern Nepal eastwards to Southeast Asia and southern China, growing in forests up to an elevation of 1,500 m.
This magnificent Terminalia myriocarpa in Cuc Phuong National Park, Vietnam, has been dubbed ‘Thousand-year-old tree’. Mosses and algae are growing on the trunk. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Terminalia mantaly, known by the popular names Madagascar almond and umbrella tree, is a native of Madagascar, where it grows in forests up to an altitude of 1,500 m. It is widely planted in warmer countries around the world.
In Taiwan, Terminalia mantaly is very commonly planted in cities. This tree in Taichung was planted in a square bed, which proved too small, and as it grew larger, its roots spread onto the sidewalk. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Cupressaceae (cypress family)
In the wild, the giant sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum) is found only in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California. Specimens of this tree are the heaviest living beings on the planet, the largest ones having an estimated weight of c. 2,100 tons.
In the book John Muir: His Life and Letters and Other Writings (edited by T. Gifford, Mountaineers Books, 1996), the following quote of Scottish-American writer and environmentalist John Muir (1838-1914), from 1870, is given: “Do behold the King in his glory, King Sequoia! Behold! Behold! seems all I can say. Some time ago I left all for Sequoia and have been and am at his feet, fasting and praying for light, for is he not the greatest light in the woods, in the world? Where are such columns of sunshine, tangible, accessible, terrestrialized?”
Most people of that period did not share Muir’s enthusiasm. Despite the fact that their wood is fibrous and brittle, and of little use for construction, thousands of these magnificent trees were ruthlessly cut down, between the 1880s and 1924, even though their commercial value was marginal. The heavy trees would often shatter when they hit the ground, and it has been estimated that as little as 50% of the timber came to use. The wood was utilized mainly for shingles and fence posts, or even for matchsticks. – Imagine! From grand tree to matchstick!
Today, fortunately, felling of this species is strictly forbidden, and a few magnificent groves have been saved.
Other pictures of these impressive trees may be seen on the page Plants – Mountain plants: Plants of Sierra Nevada.
Giant sequoias, Giant Sequoia National Park, Sierra Nevada Mountains, California. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
People appear like dwarves, when they stand next to a giant sequoia. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Due to their thick, spongy bark, giant sequoias can withstand forest fires. However, there are limits to this resistance. In these pictures, two of the trees have succumbed. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
In the 1930s, this giant sequoia was dubbed ‘Auto Log’, because its trunk was levelled, making it possible for cars to drive on it. This picture shows the root net of this tree. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Likewise in the 1930s, a road was cut through the trunk of this giant sequoia in Mariposa Grove, Yosemite National Park. Today, fortunately, this type of vandalism is strictly prohibited. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
A near relative of the giant sequoia, the coast redwood (Sequoia sempervirens), is the tallest tree in the world, reaching a height of up to 115 m. It is also among the longest-living trees, some individuals being more than 1,800 years old. Before commercial logging began in the 1850s, this tree occurred in the wild along coastal California (excluding the southernmost part), northwards to the south-western corner of Oregon. Today, it is restricted to rather scattered localities from Monterey County, south of San Francisco, northwards to extreme south-western Oregon.
Forest of coast redwood, Humboldt Redwood State Park, California. In the lower picture, I am standing at a fallen, partly decayed trunk, which gives a clear impression of the height of these magnificent trees. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The Monterey cypress (Cupressus macrocarpa, or Hesperocyparis macrocarpa) is native to central California, formerly growing only on two small locations, Point Lobos State Park and Pebble Beach, both in Monterey County, south of San Francisco. Today, however, it has been planted in many other areas along the Pacific Coast, and also in Europe, New Zealand, and South Africa.
Both of these ancient Monterey cypresses were encountered in Point Lobos State Park. In the lower picture, the trunk is covered in an orange alga, Trentepohlia aurea. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The Mendocino cypress, which grows only in the Mendocino area north of San Francisco, California, is sometimes treated as a separate species, called either Cupressus pigmaea or Hesperocyparis pygmaea. Others maintain that it is a variety, pigmaea, of the more widespread Gowen cypress (Cupressus goveniana, or Hesperocyparis goveniana). Under all circumstances, not much is pygmy-like about this tree, as it may be able to grow to a height of 43 m, with a diameter exceeding 2 m.
The trunk of an old Mendocino cypress, illuminated by the evening sun, Laguna Point, Mackerricher State Park, California. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Two species of false cypresses, genus Chamaecyparis, are native to Taiwan, the Taiwan red cypress (C. formosensis) and the Taiwan yellow cypress (C. obtusa var. formosana), both growing in areas of high precipitation at medium elevations, between 1,300 and 2,600 m altitude.
Following the Sino-Japanese war of 1894, Taiwan was ceded to Japan and became a Japanese colony. In 1912, the Japanese government began large-scale logging of false cypresses in the Alishan area, and where the Alishan Mountain Railway today passes through areas at higher elevations, cypress forests once covered the entire landscape. Soon, the forests on Taiping Shan, Ilan County, and Pahsien Shan, Nantou County, were also opened up for logging, and later also many other areas. An endless stream of cypress logs flowed out of the mountains, to be transported across the sea to Japan, where they were used for various purposes, including pillars for Shinto shrines.
Early surveys estimated that, before logging began, about 20 million ancient false cypresses were found in Taiwan. Of the approximately 300,000 false cypresses at Alishan, which were more than 1,000 years old, all that remains today is a few giant trees, scattered among introduced Japanese red cedar (Cryptomeria japonica).
Large-scale logging of these magnificent trees was continued, even after the Japanese left Taiwan in 1945 – in fact, right up to 1989. Today, the only larger areas of ancient false cypresses are forests on Hsiukulan Shan, central Taiwan, and on Chilan Shan, Ilan County. (Source: Chang Chin-ju, Ancient Giants of the Forest – Taiwan’s False Cypresses)
The oldest and largest Taiwan red cypress in Alishan National Forest, c. 2000 years old, height 43.5 m, circumference 13 m. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Red cypress, c. 1,000 years old, Alishan National Forest. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The red cypresses in the picture below, likewise in Alishan National Forest, are called ‘Three Generations Trees’. The first generation is a decayed trunk, lying on the ground. A seed sprouted in this trunk and lived for several hundred years before dying. A third tree has sprouted in the remains and is now a vigorous tree.
(Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Stump of an old red cypress, Alishan National Forest. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The lower part of the trunk of an ancient red cypress, Dasyueshan National Forest. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Two red cypresses in Yushan National Park, named the Fuci Trees, were killed by a forest fire in 1963. The dried-out trunks remained standing for many years, but one of them fell in 2019. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This trail in Alishan National Forest has been worn by so many visitors’ feet that the roots of a red cypress has appeared on the surface. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Yellow cypresses, 600-700 years old, Mingchih National Forest. The lower picture shows a close-up of the bark, with a climber. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Junipers (Juniperus) are a genus of c. 60 species, distributed in almost the entire Northern Hemisphere.
The common juniper (Juniperus communis) is the most widespread conifer in the world, found in the entire northern subarctic and temperate zones, southwards to North Africa, northern Iran, the Himalaya, Japan, and Arizona.
Formerly, this species was much utilized for various purposes, and it also played an important role in folklore. Read more on the page Plants: Plants in folklore and poetry.
This old juniper in central Jutland, Denmark, has toppled, and the trunk is covered in mosses, but it is still full of life and growing vigorously. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The black juniper (Juniperus indica) is a high-altitude tree, growing between 2,100 and 5,200 m, from Pakistan eastwards to south-eastern Tibet and south-western China. Its foliage is burned as incense in Hindu and Buddhist shrines, and the fruit is utilized in traditional medicine for fever and headache.
This old and gnarled black juniper was photographed at an altitude of c. 3,600 m, Marsyangdi Valley, Annapurna, central Nepal. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The drooping juniper (Juniperus recurva), which was named for its pendent branches, is native to southern Central Asia, from northern Pakistan eastwards to the Yunnan Province, south-western China. It grows at altitudes between 3,000 and 4,000 m.
This growth of old drooping junipers, near the Pangboche Monastery, Khumbu, eastern Nepal, is sacred to the local Tibetan Buddhists – a remnant of the animist Bon religion, which dominated in Central Asia, prior to the introduction of Buddhism. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Northern white-cedar (Thuja occidentalis) is native to eastern Canada and north-eastern United States, but is widely cultivated elsewhere as an ornamental.
This huge, multi-trunked northern white-cedar grows in a park on the island of Lolland, Denmark. Note the woman, peeping out behind one of the trunks. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The New Zealand cedar (Libocedrus bidwillii) is restricted to New Zealand, where it grows in temperate rainforests at altitudes between 250 and 1,200 m. This species is listed as near-threatened, and, apart from logging, the main threat is from browsing Australian brushtail possums (Trichosurus vulpecula), which may sometimes kill cedars. This introduced pest is presented on the page Nature: Invasive species.
New Zealand cedar was named in honour of British botanist and explorer John Carne Bidwill (1815-1853), who investigated plant life in New Zealand and Australia, discovering several species new to science. In 1851, while marking out a new road in Queensland, Bidwill got lost and was without food for eight days. He eventually succeeded in cutting a way through the scrub with a pocket hook, but never properly recovered from starvation, and died in March 1853, 38 years old. (Source: Serle, P. 1949. Bidwill, John Carne (1815-1853). Dictionary of Australian Biography. Angus & Robertson)
Old New Zealand cedars, Tongariro National Park, New Zealand. Presumably, the lump on the trunk in the lower picture has been caused by fungi. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The Lunta spruce (Cunninghamia konishii) is named for a mountain in Taiwan, Luan Ta, where it was first found in 1908. The occurrence of this species in the wild is confined to Taiwan, a few locations in Laos and Vietnam, and perhaps the Fujian Province of south-eastern China. According to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, 2017, this species is endangered in the wild.
This Lunta spruce in Taroko National Park, Taiwan, called ‘Pilu Sacred Tree’, is c. 3,200 years old and 40-50 m high. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Fabaceae (pea family)
The huge flamboyant tree (Delonix regia), also called flame tree or royal poinciana, is named for its gorgeous flowers. It is native to Madagascar, but is cultivated as an ornamental in almost all warmer countries. A picture of its huge, flat pods, which can grow to 60 cm long and 5 cm wide, can be seen on the page Silhouettes, whereas a close-up of the bark is shown on the page Nature: Nature’s patterns.
Flamboyant trees are commonly planted in Taiwan, here in Tunghai University Park, Taichung. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The tamarind tree (Tamarindus indica) is indigenous to Tropical Africa, but is widely cultivated elsewhere in hot countries for its fruits, whose pulp is used in cuisines around the world. It is also utilized in folk medicine, and to polish metal. In many Latin-speaking countries, a beverage, called tamarindo, is made from the pulp. The name tamarind is from Arabic تمر هندي (tamar hindi), meaning ‘Indian date’.
Cyclist, passing by the gnarled trunk of an ancient tamarind tree, Bagan, Myanmar. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Philippine acacia (Acacia confusa), also called Taiwan acacia or Formosan koa, is a medium-sized tree, growing to a height of c. 15 m. It is native to northern Philippines, south-eastern China, and Taiwan, but has been planted extensively elsewhere, including Southeast Asia and many Pacific islands. In Hawaii, it is considered invasive. It is very common in the lowlands of Taiwan, growing up to an altitude of c. 2,000 m, where it is often protected, as it helps prevent landslides and soil erosion.
Philippine acacia has no true leaves, but phyllodes – winged leaf stalks, which function as leaves. They are scimitar-shaped, up to 11 cm long and 2 cm wide, with 3-5 parallel veins. The wood is very hard and was formerly used as beams in Taiwanese underground mines. Today, it is used to make floors, and to produce charcoal. The plant is also utilized in traditional folk medicine in Taiwan.
Other acacia species are presented on the page In praise of the colour yellow.
This gnarled Philippine acacia in Tunghai University Park, Taichung, Taiwan, has toppled, but is still growing vigorously. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Fagaceae (beech family)
Beeches (Fagus) is a genus of 10 to 13 species of trees, native to temperate and subtropical areas of Europe, Asia, and North America.
The European beech (Fagus sylvatica) can grow to a very large tree, up to 50 m tall, and with a trunk diameter of up to 3 m. This species is largely restricted to Europe, occurring from England and the Pyrenees eastwards to Poland and Ukraine, and from southern Sweden southwards to Italy and the Balkans, with a patchy occurrence in southern Norway, central Spain, and Turkey. In the Balkans, it hybridizes with the oriental beech (Fagus orientalis), which is found in Bulgaria, Greece, Turkey, the Caucasus, and the Alborz Mountains in northern Iran.
The pictures below show various types of old beeches, and other pictures may be seen on the pages Nature: Nature’s patterns, and Autumn.
Huge, moss-covered beech, central Jutland, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This old, gnarled beech near Ry, Jutland, has several trunks, probably after being pruned many years earlier. Numerous tinder polypores (Fomes fomentarius) grow on the trunks. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Fog envelops an old, mis-shaped beech in Triglavski National Park, Slovenia. The stump to the right resembles some long-horned animal. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Ancient, dying beeches, growing near St. Martin, in the Spanish Pyrenees. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
An aberrant form of beech from Jutland, Denmark, its branches bending down and growing along the ground. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Southern beeches (Nothofagus) are relatives of the beeches, constituting about 43 species, which are native to the Southern Hemisphere, in Chile, Argentina, Australia, New Zealand, New Guinea, and New Caledonia. Several species are dominant in temperate forests.
The red southern beech (Nothofagus fusca) is endemic to New Zealand, where it occurs on both the large islands, growing in inland valleys and lower hills. It grows to 35 m tall, and the leaves are quite distinct, with large teeth along the margin.
Ancient red southern beeches, covered by mosses, lichens, and other epiphytes, Rotokura Ecological Reserve, New Zealand. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Another species of southern beech is coigüe (Nothofagus dombeyi) (pronounced coi-hoo-e), a large tree, which can grow to 45 m tall, with a diameter up to 2 m. It often forms large tracts of forest in the Andes of Chile and Argentina, at altitudes between 700 and 1,200 m. The specific name was given in honour of French botanist Joseph Dombey (1742-1794), who studied the flora of Chile 1782-1785.
You may read more about coigüe on the page Travel episodes – Chile 2011: The white forest.
This old coigüe in Parque Nacional Conguillio, Chile, has been attacked by fungi. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
In Europe, many hollow trees were worshipped far into the Middle Ages. Two such trees, both ancient common oaks (Quercus robur), and both situated north of Copenhagen, Denmark, are presented below. Even today, sacred trees are found around the world – a remnant of animism, in which trees, certain stones etc. were objects of worship and offerings. You may read about animistic rituals on the page Religion: Animism.
With a circumference of 10.3 m, the Skovfogedegen (‘Forest Ranger’s Oak’) is one of the largest trees in Denmark. It was named after forest ranger Johan Georg Weissler, who, in the early 1800s, arranged his own private oratory inside its hollow trunk.
Skovfogedegen. The lower picture was taken from inside the hollow tree. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Ulvedalsegen (‘Wolf Valley Oak’), also called ‘The Theatre Oak’, is slightly larger than the Forest Ranger’s Oak, with a circumference of 10.4 m. The name ‘Theatre Oak’ stems from an old tradition of performing plays in front of this old tree.
Ulvedalsegen. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The Indian holly oak (Quercus floribunda, previously Q. dilatata), in Hindi moru, is found from Afghanistan eastwards to Nepal, growing in forests at altitudes between 1,600 and 2,900 m.
This large Indian holly oak in Asi Ganga Valley, Uttarakhand, northern India, is a so-called ‘money tree’. Coins are hammered into its bark as an offering, supposedly bringing good luck. This practice is also a remnant of animism. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Below, a number of other ancient oak trees are shown.
Formerly, the forest at Halltorps Hage, Öland, Sweden, was home to about a thousand ancient common oaks, but, unfortunately, the major part of these were felled in the 1930s, and out of the remaining 30 or so, most are not doing too well.
Dead common oak, Halltorps Hage, Öland, Sweden. Its trunk is covered in feeding tunnels of larvae of the great capricorn beetle (Cerambyx cerdo). (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This old common oak grows on the island of Almö, Blekinge, Sweden. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Bolleregen (‘The Boller Oak’), an ancient common oak, about 800 years old, growing at the Boller Estate, near Horsens, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The sessile oak (Quercus petraea) is mainly European, found from southern Scandinavia and the British Isles, southwards to Portugal, eastwards to Poland and the Balkans, with isolated populations in Turkey, the Caucasus, and northern Iran. It can be told from the common oak (Quercus robur) by its darker, shiny, less indented leaves. Pictures, depicting leaves of both species, may be seen on the page Plants: Plants in folklore and poetry.
In this picture, Lars Skipper is admiring an ancient sessile oak, growing on the shore of Lake Almind, Silkeborg, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Sweet chestnut (Castanea sativa) is native to the Mediterranean region, eastwards to the Alborz and Zagros mountains of Iran. This large tree, growing to 35 m tall, may live for 500 or 600 years, and cultivated specimens are reputedly a thousand years old.
Sweet chestnut is widely cultivated for its edible nuts and for its wood. Raw chestnuts are covered by a tough skin, which has an unpleasant, astringent taste. They are usually roasted, which makes it easier to remove the skin. Chestnut orchards are commonly found in Spain, Portugal, France, Switzerland, Italy, Greece, and elsewhere.
During my stay in the Zagros Mountains in south-western Iran (see Travel episodes – Iran 1973: In the mountains of Luristan), I was told that fruits of sweet chestnut, which is common in these mountains, were an important food item, when the wheat crop failed.
In his book Flora Danica, from 1648, Danish physician and herbalist Simon Paulli (1603-1680) says: ”Galenus [Claudius Galenus (130-210 A.D.), Greek-Roman physician and philosopher] praises the fruits of sweet chestnut above all other kinds of acorns, which are good to eat. We must point out that we do not agree with Johan Bodæo à Stapel, who, with beautiful and learned comments, has illustrated Theophrastum Eresium [a work by Greek scholar and botanist Theophrastos (c. 371 – c. 287 B.C.), called ‘The Father of Botany’]; because he claims that sweet chestnuts are a kind of nuts. However, to us it seems more appropriate to regard them as a kind of acorns, but we do not want to go into detail here. (…)
Those, who hold their health in high esteem, should take care that they do not eat too many sweet chestnuts, because the above-mentioned Galenus also says this about them: (…) Sweet chestnuts, cooked or fried or dried over a fire, are always evil, but above all when they are eaten raw.”
Old chestnut tree with several trunks, near Milones, western Crete. Or are they five separate trees, which have sprouted in the same spot from seeds, buried by some animal? (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Lauraceae (laurel family)
The camphor tree (Cinnamomum camphora) is native to southern Japan, South Korea, south-eastern China, Taiwan, and Vietnam, and is widely cultivated elsewhere for production of camphor, which is used as a component of incense, as a spice, as medicine, and as an insect repellent. The largest known camphor tree, Kamō no Ōkusu (‘Great camphor of Kamō), which is found in Japan, has a circumference of 24.2 m.
Flowering huge camphor tree, growing in Tunghai University Park, Taichung, Taiwan. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Lythraceae (loosestrife family)
Crepe myrtles (Lagerstroemia) are a genus of c. 50 species of trees and shrubs, which are native to the Indian Subcontinent, Southeast Asia, northern Australia, and some islands in the Pacific Ocean. Due to their beautiful flowers, many species are cultivated in numerous warmer areas.
This genus was named by Swedish naturalist Carolus Linnaeus, also known as Carl von Linné (1707-1778), in honour of a Swedish merchant, Magnus von Lagerström (1696-1759), who was director of the Swedish East India Company. Lagerström was a keen naturalist, and despite never visiting Asia, he was able to procure many specimens from India and China, which he presented to Linnaeus. (Source: E. Bretschneider 1898. History of European Botanical Discoveries in China)
The Chinese crepe-myrtle (Lagerstroemia subcostata) is a small tree, to 14 m tall, with a characteristic smooth and pale bark, which makes you think that the tree is dead. This species grows in forests and along streams, from low to medium elevations. It is native to Japan, Taiwan, China, and the Philippines.
An old Chinese crepe-myrtle, Aowanda National Forest, Taiwan. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Malvaceae (mallow family)
The common linden (Tilia x europaea), sometimes called common lime, is a hybrid between small-leaved linden (T. cordata) and large-leaved linden (T. platyphyllos). In Europe, it occurs in the wild here and there, where both parent species are present. It is very widely cultivated, being the commonest lime species in urban areas, despite the fact that it is host to vast populations of aphids, which produce huge amounts of honeydew, leaving a sticky layer on parked cars, and everything else, beneath the trees. It is a very popular tree among bee-keepers, as its flowers produce an esteemed type of honey.
Common linden can grow very old and very large, up to 50 m high. One long-lived specimen was the ’Malmvik lime’, planted as a sapling near the Malmvik Manor, Stockholm, Sweden, in 1618. This tree lived for 381 years, until its remains fell during a storm in 1999. (Source: R. Bengtsson, 2004. The Malmvik Lime: An Historical and Biological Analysis of the Oldest Documented Planting of Common Lime (Tilia x europaea L.) in Sweden. The Garden History Society. 32 (2):188-196)
The largest common linden in Britain is at Aysgarth, Yorkshire, which, in 2009, was 26 m tall, with a diameter of 2,95 m. (Source: O. Johnson, 2011. Champion Trees of Britain & Ireland. Kew Publishing, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, London)
Old and gnarled common linden trees, Jægerspris, Zealand, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Bronze Age burial mound at Gisselfeldt, Zealand, Denmark, overgrown by large common linden trees. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The common baobab (Adansonia digitata) is the most widespread among the nine species in this genus, of which six are native to Madagascar, two to mainland Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, and one to Australia. This majestic tree often dominates large areas of savanna in sub-Saharan Africa.
Common names of this species include dead-rat tree (from the sausage-like fruit, hanging in a long stalk – the rat’s tail), monkey-bread tree (the fruit is edible), and upside-down tree (the sparse branches resemble roots). The name baobab is derived from the Arabic būħibāb, meaning ‘the father of many seeds’. The generic name refers to French botanist and explorer Michel Adanson (1727-1806), who was the first European to observe the species during an expedition to Senegal.
Rainbow behind giant baobabs, Tarangire National Park, Tanzania. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This picture, also from Tarangire National Park, depicts a hollow baobab, partly destroyed by elephants (Loxodonta africana), which have eaten much of the bark, peeling it off with their tusks. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Moraceae (fig family)
Figs (Ficus) are a genus of about 850 species of trees, vines, or epiphytes, native throughout the tropics and subtropics, with a few species extending into warmer parts of the northern temperate zone.
Banyan, or Bengal fig (Ficus benghalensis), has long aerial roots, hanging down from the branches, which often take root, over time creating a ’forest’ of trunks, all of which are in fact a single individual. Read more about this species on the page Plants: Pipal and banyan – two sacred fig trees.
This 250-year-old banyan in Kolkata Botanical Garden, West Bengal, India, has grown to enormous dimensions, creating an entire patch of ‘forest’, which is in reality only a single tree. The central trunk (the mother tree) was removed in 1925 because of rot. When this picture was taken in 1994, there were c. 1,825 stilt roots, with a total circumference of c. 420 m and a height of c. 25 m. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The weeping fig (Ficus benjamina) is native to the Indian Subcontinent, eastwards to southern China and Taiwan, and thence southwards through Southeast Asia and Indonesia to northern Australia, and eastwards to some of the Pacific islands. When small, it is a very popular house plant, but in the wild it grows to enormous dimensions, with numerous aerial roots.
This gigantic weeping fig grows near the Wenara Wana Temple (popularly called ‘Monkey Forest’), near Ubud, Bali, Indonesia. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Another huge weeping fig with numerous aerial roots, called the ‘Thousand-root banyan’, growing in Jhiben National Forest, eastern Taiwan. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The dye fig (Ficus tinctoria), also called humped fig, belongs to a group of fig trees, called strangler figs. Most seeds of these trees begin their life as an epiphyte in a tree, the seed often sprouting in a pile of bird dung, delivered by the bird which ate the fig fruit. Over the years, aerial roots of the young strangler fig grow down to the ground, where they take root, while other roots wrap themselves around the host tree, over time completely enveloping the tree, which is eventually strangled to death. As the trunk of the host tree decays, it leaves the fig tree as a hollow cylinder of aerial roots.
The dye fig has more or less the same distribution as the weeping fig. Its name stems from the traditional usage of its fruits to produce a dye. The specific name tinctoria is Latin, meaning ‘to dye’.
The gnarled base of the trunk of a dye fig of the subspecies gibbosa, strangling a silk-cotton tree (Bombax ceiba), photographed among the Khmer ruins at Angkor Wat, Cambodia. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Dye figs also readily grow on buildings, as this huge specimen, embracing a ruin at Ta Prohm, Angkor Wat, Cambodia. More pictures of these impressive ruins are found on the page Decay. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The large-leaved fig (Ficus superba) is another strangler fig, which also readily grows on buildings. However, it is also able to thrive as a normal tree. It is distributed in China, Taiwan, Japan, and parts of Southeast Asia, southwards to Indonesia.
Aerial roots of this giant large-leaved fig have enveloped the remains of the former warehouse of Tait & Co., Anping, Taiwan. Today, the building is called Anping Tree House. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Ancient large-leaved fig, growing in a park at the Daoist ‘Temple of the Five Concubines’, from 1683, Tainan, Taiwan. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Pipal, or sacred fig (Ficus religiosa), is yet another strangler fig, which also often grows on buildings. Its leaves are broad and heart-shaped, ending in a long, tapering point. This tree is sacred to Buddhists and Hindus, hence its specific name, as well as one of its English names. Read more about this species on the page Plants: Pipal and banyan – two sacred fig trees.
This pipal grows around a small Hindu shrine in Kathmandu, Nepal, causing it to crack. Over the years, it will destroy the building completely. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Huge fig tree, blurred by morning fog, Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This street restaurant has been established beneath a huge fig tree, Hanoi, Vietnam. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
In Hinduism, apsaras are supernatural female beings, superb in the art of dancing. They are often depicted dancing to music, delivered by Gandharvas, court musicians of the rain god Indra. They entertain and sometimes seduce gods and men.
Over time, this Khmer sculpture at Ta Prohm, Angkor Wat, Cambodia, has been almost completely enveloped by a huge strangler fig. It may depict an apsara. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Myrtaceae (myrtle family)
Pohutukawa (Metrosideros excelsa), also called New Zealand Christmas tree due to its brilliant crimson flower display around Christmas, is an evergreen tree – one among 12 species in the genus Metrosideros, which are all endemic to New Zealand. The specific name is derived from the Latin excelsus (‘sublime’), presumably referring to the gorgeous flower display of this species. Pohutukawa is a Maori word, referring to a coastal shrub.
This tree grows to 25 m tall, with numerous spreading trunks. Its natural range is coastal regions of the North Island. Once upon a time, it formed a continuous coastal fringe from the present-day towns of New Plymouth and Gisborne, but by the 1990s, farming and introduced pests had reduced these magnificent forests by over 90%. Its durable wood was often used in shipbuilding, since the naturally curvy shapes made strong knees (an angular piece of timber, utilized to reinforce the junction of two surfaces of different planes). (Main source: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metrosideros_excelsa, which has a list of other sources.)
Ancient pohutukawa trees on the Karikari Peninsula, New Zealand. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Oleaceae (olive family)
Olive trees (Olea europaea) can live for more than 2000 years. Some specimens in the Gethsemane Garden, beneath the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, were young trees, when Jesus wandered in this area.
The olive tree is described in detail on the pages Plants: Plants in folklore and poetry, and Traditional medicine.
Three ancient olive trees, Crete. The black nets are used during harvest of the olives, when people beat the branches with sticks to loosen the fruits. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This split and pruned olive tree was once planted on a square in the town of Mordogan, Karaburun Peninsula, near Izmir, Turkey. Or is it in reality four trees, which were once upon a time interwoven? (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Pinaceae (pine family)
Pines (Pinus) are a huge genus of conifers, comprising around 125 species. They are distributed in arctic, temperate and subtropical areas of almost the entire Northern Hemisphere.
If left in peace, many species of pines are able to grow very old and gnarled. Below is a collection of photos of remarkable old pine trees that I have encountered at various places around the world.
One day, towards the end of April 1992, I was hiking up a slope in Inyo National Forest, White Mountains, eastern California. In front of me were the most remarkable trees I have ever seen. At a distance, they appeared completely dead, with twisted, naked branches, stretching from a yellowish trunk towards the blue sky. But then – at closer quarters I noticed a narrow strip of bark on the side of the trunk, which pointed away from the direction of the prevailing wind. This strip of bark was leading up to one or two branches, densely covered in green needles, and from the tip of these branches, small cones were hanging down, their scales equipped with bristle-like appendages.
These peculiar trees were Great Basin bristlecone pines (Pinus longaeva), which is restricted to high-altitude areas in eastern California, Nevada, and Utah. Apart from certain clones, including a creosote (Larrea tridentata) in the Mohave Desert, whose age is estimated at c. 9,400 years, this pine is the oldest living organism on Earth, a few of them being around 5,000 years old.
More photos of these remarkable trees may be seen on the page Plants – Mountain plants: Plants of Sierra Nevada.
Ancient Great Basin bristlecone pines, Inyo National Forest, White Mountains. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Turkish pine (Pinus brutia), also called Calabrian pine, is native to the eastern Mediterranean, from Greece eastwards to the Caucasus, and from Bulgaria and the Turkish Black Sea coast southwards to Israel, Jordan, and northern Iraq. The name Calabrian pine stems from a naturalized population in Calabria, the southernmost part of the Italian Peninsula. When this pine was first described, the type specimen was from this region.
These old, gnarled Turkish pines were photographed at the Tuzlabeli Pass (1440 m), south-western Turkey. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Old, twisted Turkish pine, encountered in a gorge near Sougia, southern Crete. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris) has an enormous distribution, found from Spain and Scotland eastwards across Europe and Siberia to north-eastern China, and southwards to Turkey, the Caucasus, and Mongolia. In Scandinavia, it is found northwards to the Porsanger Fjord, Norway, making it the northernmost pine species in the world. In 2014, the Scots pine was elected the national tree of Scotland.
This ancient Scots pine has finally succumbed to old age, Byrums Sandfelt, Öland, Sweden. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
These c. 35-metre-high Scots pines, growing in Böda Kronoskog, Öland, Sweden, are called Mastträd (‘The Mast Trees’) – a suitable name for these majestic trees. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Whitebark pine (Pinus albicaulis) is native to montane areas from British Columbia southwards through Washington, Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming, and with patchy occurrence in Oregon, Nevada, and California. In favourable conditions, it may grow to almost 30 m tall, but at exposed locations it often becomes dwarfed and twisted.
This old, gnarled whitebark pine stands on the crater rim in Crater Lake National Park, Oregon. Yellow lichens are growing on its exposed roots. Crater Lake evolved in the caldera of a collapsed ancient volcano, called Mount Mazama. Wizard Island is seen in the background. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Chir pine, or long-leaved pine (Pinus roxburghii) occurs in montane areas from Afghanistan across the Himalaya to south-eastern Tibet. This species is utilized for a number of purposes. The wood is used as timber and to make furniture and charcoal. It also yields turpentine. The resin is used in a number of products, including paper, soap, cosmetics, paint, varnish, rubber, polish, and bangles. Tannin from the bark is used in dyeing. The seeds are roasted and eaten, and in Nepal, honey dew from aphids living on the needles is eaten as candy.
Parts of this tree are ingredients in folk medicine, used for numerous ailments, see Traditional medicine.
Tapping resin from the trunk of an old chir pine, Sairopa, Himachal Pradesh, India. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The bishop pine (Pinus muricata) is a coastal species with a very restricted distribution, found only on a few localities on the Californian coast, on some of the Channel Islands, and two places in Baja California, Mexico. The name bishop pine arose, when this tree was first identified near the Mission of San Luis Obispo, California.
This old bishop pine was observed in Jughandle State Park, California. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Mountain pine (Pinus mugo) is native to southern Europe, from the Pyrenees across the Alps to the Carpathians, and southwards to the Apennines in Italy, and to higher mountains of the Balkans. It is also called creeping pine due to its often low and creeping habit at higher altitudes. Along the Danish west coast, this species has been widely planted to stabilize sand dunes, and has become widely naturalized there.
Old mountain pine, Rosanintal, Austria. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The Himalayan cedar (Cedrus deodara), or deodar, is distributed from Afghanistan eastwards to western Nepal. This tree can grow to enormous dimensions, up to 80 m tall, its huge bole having a circumference of up to 12 m. Its generic name, Cedrus, from the Greek kedros, stems from an ancient Indo-European word, meaning incense. Formerly, needles and wood of cedar were used as incense. Today, traditional medicine is made from an essential oil in its wood.
Deodar is dealt with in depth on the page Traditional medicine.
Himalayan cedars, growing near the Hadimba Temple, a Hindu temple in Manali, Himachal Pradesh, northern India. – This shrine is described in depth on the page Religion: Hinduism. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
At some point during its lifetime, this old deodar, which was observed in the Tirthan Valley, Great Himalayan National Park, Himachal Pradesh, was probably on the verge of sliding into the abyss. However, it managed to cling to the precipice, several of its trunks becoming partly horizontal. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The Lebanon cedar (Cedrus libani) used to cover huge areas in countries around the eastern Mediterranean, in southern Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, and Cyprus. Today, only a tiny fraction of the former old-growth cedar forests remains. However, widespread reforestation of the species is taking place in Lebanon and Turkey. In the latter country, over 50 million young cedars are planted annually, covering an area of c. 300 km2.
Lebanon cedar is mentioned several times in the Old Testament:
Moses told Hebrew priests to use the bark of this tree to cure leprosy. (Leviticus 14:1-4)
Hebrew prophet Isaiah used the Lebanon cedar as a metaphor for the haughty pride of humans. (Isaiah 2:13)
King Solomon ordered the Temple of Jerusalem to be built of cedar timber. (Source: ourladyoflebanon-dc.org/histcedars.html)
And, finally, the Song of Solomon, 5:15, “His legs are like marble pillars, set in sockets of finest gold. His posture is stately, like the noble cedars of Mount Lebanon.”
In this picture, Judy Chiang has found shelter from the intense heat beneath an ancient Lebanon cedar, near Ermenek, Toros Dağlari (Taurus Mountains), southern Turkey. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Firs (Abies) are a genus of c. 50 species of conifers, mainly growing in montane areas across Eurasia, North Africa, and much of North and Central America.
The Himalayan silver fir (Abies spectabilis) can grow to a tree of very large proportions, to 50 m tall, with a trunk up to 1.5 m across. This species is very common in the Himalaya, found from Afghanistan eastwards to Myanmar. It is widely used locally, its wood for construction, carpentry, furniture, paper-making, and firewood. The foliage is utilized medicinally for asthma, bronchitis, colds, and rheumatism, and is also burned as incense.
This ancient Himalayan silver fir in the Khumbu area, eastern Nepal, has a large hole in the trunk, but is still alive. The tree to the left is an old drooping juniper (Juniperus recurva). A sacred grove of this species is shown elsewhere on this page (see Cupressaceae). (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The Taiwan, or Kawakami, fir (Abies kawakamii) is restricted to the highest mountain tops of Taiwan, between 2,400 and 3,800 m altitude. This species is declining, as its sub-populations have become fragmented, fire being the main threat.
These Taiwan firs, photographed at c. 3,000 m altitude on Hohuan Shan, are stunted from fierce winds and frost. The one to the right has already succumbed. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The Himalayan hemlock (Tsuga dumosa), which grows to 40 m tall, is very common in the Himalaya, found at altitudes between 2,000 and 3,600 m, from Uttarakhand eastwards to northern Myanmar, south-eastern Tibet, and south-western China, with an isolated population in northern Vietnam. Its timber is used for construction, furniture, and foot-bridges, and its needles are burned as incense in Hindu and Buddhist shrines.
After a forest fire, two tall stumps are all that remains of a huge Himalayan hemlock, near Tharepati, Langtang National Park, Nepal. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The Taiwan hemlock (Tsuga chinensis var. formosana), a variety of the Chinese hemlock, is quite common in mixed broad-leaved forests in montane areas of Taiwan, at altitudes between 1,700 and 3,500 m. Some authorities question the validity of this variety, claiming that it is identical with the type, T. chinensis. The Chinese hemlock, in its wider sense, is found from Tibet eastwards to China and Taiwan, southwards to northern Vietnam.
White trunks of dead Taiwan hemlocks, contrasting sharply with the lush, green forest on the slopes of Yu Shan (3952 m), the highest mountain in Taiwan. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) is native to western North America, with two varieties, one coastal, growing from British Columbia southwards to central California, and one montane, found in the Rocky Mountains from British Columbia southwards to Mexico. Today, this species is cultivated almost worldwide for its excellent timber.
The specific name was given in honour of Scottish naturalist Archibald Menzies (1754-1842), who participated, as surgeon and botanist, in an expedition around the world on board HMS Discovery, under the leadership of Captain George Vancouver (1757-1798).
The English name honours Scottish gardener and botanist David Douglas (1799-1834), who explored the North American flora during three expeditions. He introduced Douglas-fir and other conifers, especially pine species, as well as a number of bushes and herbs, into British cultivation. In a letter to Sir William Jackson Hooker (1785-1865), director of the Botanical Gardens of Glasgow University, he wrote, “You will begin to think I manufacture pines at my pleasure.”
Douglas died under mysterious circumstances while climbing Mauna Kea in Hawaii in 1834. Apparently, he fell into a pit trap and was possibly crushed by a bull that fell into the same trap. He was last seen at the hut of Englishman Edward ‘Ned’ Gurney, a bullock hunter and escaped convict. Gurney was suspected in Douglas’s death, as Douglas was said to have been carrying more money than Gurney subsequently delivered with the body. (Source: Nisbet, J. 2009. The Collector: David Douglas and the Natural History of the Northwest. Sasquatch Books)
A picture, depicting an unripe cone of Douglas-fir, may be seen on the page Nature: Nature’s patterns.
This 750-year-old Douglas-fir has taken root in a narrow canyon on the Navaho Loop Trail, Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah, United States. This area of fantastic rock formations is described on the page Nature: Rocks and boulders. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Platanaceae (plane tree family)
Eight of the ten species of the magnificent plane trees, genus Platanus, are indigenous to North America, one is found in Laos and Vietnam, whereas the tenth species, the oriental plane tree (Platanus orientalis), is distributed from the Balkans and Turkey southwards to Jordan, but may be a native as far west as Italy, and as far east as Kashmir in northern India. As it is widely cultivated, it is often difficult to decide, whether a population is indigenous or not.
The generic name is from the Greek platanos, which was the ancient name of maple trees (Acer). It refers to the maple-like leaves of the oriental plane tree. Some North American species are called sycamores, likewise referring to the leaves, which resemble those of the European sycamore maple (Acer pseudoplatanus).
The London plane tree (Platanus x acerifolia), which is widely planted in North European cities, is a hybrid between the oriental plane tree and the North American occidental plane tree (P. occidentalis). Some authorities claim that this hybrid arose in Spain in the 1600s, where the two mother species were planted side by side. Others point to the Royal Tradescant Arboretum, southern London, where John Tradescant the Younger (1608-1662) was a gardener. P. occidentalis as well as P. orientalis are mentioned from this arboretum, so the hybrid possibly arose here, as indicated by the name London plane.
An old, partly burned oriental plane tree, growing on the grounds of the Topkapı Palace (Topkapı Sarayı), Istanbul, Turkey. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This oriental plane tree, growing near the village of Pahalgam, Kashmir, India, displays brilliant autumn foliage. The slender trees with yellow foliage are poplars (Populus). (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Metro train, passing a huge oriental plane tree in Istanbul, Turkey. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Ancient and hollow oriental plane tree, western Crete. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
An old Arizona sycamore (Platanus wrightii), photographed in the Catalina Mountains, Arizona. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This Californian sycamore (Platanus racemosa) in Cleveland National Forest, California, is infested with many oak mistletoes (Phoradendron villosum). – The oak mistletoe and many other parasitic plants are described on the page Plants: Parasitic plants. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The London plane tree (Platanus x acerifolia) is widely planted in northern Europe. This beautiful row grows near Gjorslev Estate, Zealand, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
On the Gråbrødre Square in central Copenhagen, a London plane tree was planted in 1907. Today, it is a large, beautiful tree with an enormous crown. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Plane fruits are very characteristic, with numerous nutlets, forming balls, hanging on long stalks, 2 to 4 together. The nutlets are surrounded by stiff hairs, which assist in spreading the seeds with the wind.
This picture from Manisa, western Turkey, shows fruits of oriental plane. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Rhamnaceae (buckthorn family)
Indian jujube (Ziziphus mauritiana) is a smallish tree, probably native to India and Southeast Asia. However, it has been widely cultivated for more than 4000 years. The fruit is tasty, eaten dried, candied, pickled, and as so-called ber butter, and also taken as a beverage. It is very rich in vitamin C, second only to guava (Psidium guajava). Ripe fruits are dried in the sun, ground, and kept for out-of-season. In Ethiopia, the fruits are used as fish poison. The flowers yield honey.
The wood is hard and yields excellent timber, used as well lining, and for boats, tools, and legs for bedsteads. It is also used as firewood and makes good charcoal. In certain African countries, the thorny shrubs are made into corral fences to protect livestock. The seed oil can be utilized as excellent biodiesel. Indian jujube is also widely used in folk medicine, described on the page Traditional medicine.
This species has become naturalized in numerous countries, from southern Africa across the Middle East to China, and also in Australia and the Pacific Islands. It is regarded as an invasive in northern Australia, where it has become a serious threat to the environment.
The picture below is from the sacred temple of the Sikhs, Hari Mandir, often called ‘The Golden Temple’, in Amritsar, Punjab, north-western India. A 475-year-old jujube tree, which grows on the temple premises, supposedly possesses healing powers, and women, who wish to give birth to a son, attach bits of cloth to its bark as an offering. You may read more about Hari Mandir on the page Travel episodes – India 1997: Golden Temple of the Sikhs.
(Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Rosaceae (rose family)
Cherry plum (Prunus cerasifera), also known as myrobalan plum, is a close relative of the cherry. This small tree, sometimes reaching a height of 12 m, is a native of south-eastern Europe and western Asia. Due to its edible fruits, which taste somewhat like plums, it was introduced to most parts of Europe and North America at an early stage, and has become widely naturalized there.
Cherry plum trees often produce an abundance of fruits. If they are not picked by people, they remain on the tree, until they are over-ripe and fall to the ground. Wild birds are not at all able to eat all these berries, which often lie almost in layers on the ground beneath the tree. Rotting cherry plums are much praised by butterflies and wasps. Pictures of these fruits are presented on the page Autumn.
Where cherry plum trees are left in peace, they can grow trunks of an impressive size, like this ancient one in central Jutland, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Salicaceae (willow family)
Poplars (Populus), also called aspen or cottonwood, is a genus of anywhere between 25 and 35 species of trees, some of which are indeed majestic, growing to 50 m tall, and with a trunk diameter up to 2.5 m. Poplars are deciduous, and several species display brilliant yellow foliage in the autumn, examples of which may be seen on the page In praise of the colour yellow.
Poplars are native to the major part of the Northern Hemisphere, from subarctic areas southwards to Mexico, North Africa, Iran, the Himalaya, and China.
Ancient poplars of an unidentified species, between Raetihi and Ore-Ore, New Zealand. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The Canadian poplar (Populus x canadensis) is a hybrid between black poplar (Populus nigra), which is native to Europe, south-western and central Asia, and North Africa, and eastern cottonwood, or necklace poplar (Populus deltoides), which is native to the United States, south-eastern Canada, and north-eastern Mexico. This hybrid is very commonly planted around the world, often along roads.
Pruned Canadian poplars along a road on the island of Langeland, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Pruned Canadian poplars, illuminated by the morning sun on the island of Lyø, Denmark. The one in front resembles a gaping monster. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Bark of an old Canadian poplar, Jutland, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The Himalayan poplar (Populus ciliata) is a large tree, growing to 20 m tall, with a thick, fissured bark on older trunks. The leaves are ovate to heart-shaped, long-pointed, finely toothed, to 25 cm long and 15 cm broad, with a very long stalk, to 13 cm. This species grows in forests, along streams, and in open areas between 1,500 and 3,600 m altitude, from Pakistan eastwards through southern Tibet to the Yunnan Province in China. It is widely cultivated in Tibetan areas, where its wood is used for construction, the branches to make roofs, and the foliage for fodder. A paste of the bark is applied to muscular swellings.
The Muktinath Temple is situated in a growth of old Himalayan poplars in the Jhong River Valley, Mustang, central Nepal. This temple, which is dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu, is described in detail on the page Religion: Hinduism. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Salvadora oleoides is a small tree with drooping branches, growing to a height of c. 6 m. It is common in arid areas of southern Iran, southern Pakistan, and north-western India. In Hindi, this species is called pilu, appearing in the great epic Mahabharata, in the Karna Parva, Chapter 30, v. 24: “When shall I be amongst those ladies, eating cakes of flour and meat and balls of pounded barley, mixed with skimmed milk, in the forests, having many pleasant paths of sami and pilu and karira!”
The fruit is edible, with a sweet taste, and a rich source of calcium. However, it may irritate the mouth, sometimes producing tingling and ulceration. The plant is utilized medicinally, the seed oil and leaves for treatment of rheumatism, the leaves also to relieve cough, the fruit for enlarged spleen, rheumatism, tumours, fever, and kidney and gallbladder stones. The wood is used for construction, agricultural implements, and boats, and locally it is an important fuel.
A near relative, Salvadora persica, is called toothbrush tree. For centuries, twigs of this species have been used as a natural toothbrush.
An ancient, gnarled specimen of Salvadora oleoides, Thar Desert, north-western India. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Sapindaceae (soapberry family)
The Norway maple (Acer platanoides) is native to Europe, found from southern Scandinavia southwards to the Pyrenees, Italy, and the Balkans, eastwards to Ukraine, and thence southwards to the Caucasus and Turkey. Norway maple has been introduced to North America, where it has become invasive in many eastern states. For this reason, Massachusetts and New Hampshire have banned planting of this tree.
This ancient Norway maple grows in a park in the centre of the Old Town, Ystad, Skåne, Sweden. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
A near relative of the Norway maple is the sycamore maple (Acer pseudoplatanus), which is native to Central Europe. It was introduced to Britain around 1500, and has also become naturalized in other parts of Europe, and in Australia, New Zealand, and North America. In many places, it has become invasive, easily spreading by its winged seeds, which are produced in the tens of thousands on a single large tree.
An example of the effective spreading of sycamore maple is seen on the island of Vorsø, a nature reserve in Horsens Fjord, Denmark. On this island, former fields were abandoned in two steps, in 1928 and in 1978. In both cases, thousands of maple seeds, stemming from a few trees in plantations at the edge of the fields, were spread by the wind. The succession of these maple forests is described in detail on the page Nature Reserve Vorsø: Expanding wilderness.
Furrowed bark of an old sycamore maple, Nature Reserve Vorsø, Horsens Fjord, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Horsechestnuts and buckeyes, genus Aesculus, are native to temperate areas of the Northern Hemisphere, with one species in Europe, which originally stems from the Balkans, c. 10 in Asia, and 7 in North America. At an early stage, the European species, Aesculus hippocastanum, was introduced to the major part of Europe, to Turkey, where it is today very conspicuous in Istanbul, and to North America.
The Latin aesculus is the name of the sessile oak (Quercus petraea), possibly derived from aigilops, the Greek name of an oak with edible acorns. As horsechestnut fruits are poisonous, it is indeed a bit of a mystery, why Swedish naturalist Carolus Linnaeus, or Carl von Linné (1707-1778), named the genus Aesculus. However, it must be pointed out that the meal is edible after boiling the fruits, and it was formerly used as cattle and chicken feed.
The specific name hippocastanum is from the Greek word hippos (‘horse’), and the Turkish name of the plant, at kestanesi, referring to the fact that the fruits were formerly utilized for treatment of ailments in horses, including excessive wind.
An American species of this genus, California buckeye (Aesculus californica), is presented on the page Plants – Mountain plants: Plants of Sierra Nevada, whereas Indian horsechestnut (A. indica) is dealt with on the page In praise of the colour yellow.
Avenue of European horsechestnut trees in evening sun, Langeland, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Bark of an old horsechestnut tree, Funen, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Taxaceae (yew family)
The European yew (Taxus baccata) is native to Europe, North Africa, south-western Asia, and northern Iran. In the Himalaya, it is replaced by a close relative, the Himalayan yew (Taxus wallichiana), which was formerly regarded as a subspecies of the European yew. Yew cones are highly modified, each cone containing only one seed, surrounded by a bright red, fleshy, berry-like aril, which is edible. The seed, however, is very poisonous.
The trunk of an ancient yew, Glendalough, Ireland. To the right, still clinging to the trunk, is a withered ivy (Hedera helix). (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Tetrameles nudiflora is a huge rainforest tree, which can grow to a height of 45 m. It is distributed in the Indian Subcontinent and in Southeast Asia, southwards through Malaysia and Indonesia to northern Australia.
Many of the Khmer ruins at Ta Prohm, Angkor Wat, Cambodia, have been enveloped by the roots of giant specimens of Tetrameles nudiflora. More pictures of these impressive ruins may be seen on the page Decay. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Welwitschia mirabilis is the sole surviving representative of this ancient family of cone-bearing plants, which are distantly related to conifers. This species is confined to the Namib Desert in western Namibia. In fact, Welwitschia is a tree, but most of it is underground, the roots obtaining water 20 m or more below the desert surface.
You may read more about Welwitschia and other aspects of Namibian nature on the page Countries and places: Namibia – a desert country.
This Welwitschia, which was photographed near Swakopmund, is about 1,500 years old. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
(Uploaded June 2016)
(Latest update March 2020)