From tallest to oldest and fastest-growing to most dangerous, these superlative specimens are trees at their most extreme. Given that human life is literally dependent on trees, all trees great and small are remarkable in our book. But there's another book that makes mention of a number of specific trees and tree species: The book of Guinness World Records. Started by the managing director of the Guinness Brewery in 1954, the first version of the now-famous brand was as a promotion book of facts and figures to help settle pub arguments. We may have the all-wise pocket oracle known as Google to help in that department now, but the Guinness records remain a fun way to qualify the extremes. The following superstar trees all hold the current world records in their category – and while they may be eventually outranked by unknown specimens or future trees, for now at least they hold their title according to all things Guinness.
1. Fastest Growing Tree: Empress Tree
The world ́s fastest-growing tree is Paulownia tomentosa, pictured above, also known as the empress or foxglove tree (in honor of its explosion of purple foxglove-like flowers). It can grow 20 feet (6 meters) in its first year, and as much as 1 foot (30 centimeters) in three weeks. Native to central and west China, it is now naturalized all over the United States. Remarkably, these big guys also produce three to four times more oxygen during photosynthesis than any other known species of tree. Respect!
2. Tallest Living Tree: Hyperion
Well hello, you tall drink of water you. This is Hyperion, a coast redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) which measured 379.1 feet (115.54 meters) when discovered by Chris Atkins and Michael Taylor in California's Redwood National Park in 2006, making it the tallest known living tree in the world. Before the mid-19th century, coast redwoods had a 2-million acre range along the Pacific coast, from Big Sur to southern Oregon. With the gold rush came the logging; today only 5 percent of the original old-growth coast redwood forest remains along a 450-mile strip of coast; Hyperion is a lucky survivor, but who knows how many even taller trees fell victim to man's folly? As depressing at that is, thankfully there are some tree saviors out there, like this man who is cloning old-growth redwoods and planting them in safe places.
3. Highest Elevation Tree: Polylepis Tarapacana
Polylepis tarapacana (whose official accepted name is now Polylepis tomentella) can live to be over 700 years old in the semi-arid ecosystem of the Altiplano in the central Andes. Living at altitudes between 13,000 to 17,000 feet (4,000 and 5,200 meters) above sea level, they lay claim to populating the world's highest-elevation woodland. According to Guinness, the genus Polylepis is part of Rosaceae family and includes 28 species of small- to medium-sized evergreen trees growing at very high elevations in the tropical and subtropical Andes of South America from Venezuela to northern Argentina.
4. Oldest Tree Ever Documented: Prometheus
The recorded oldest age for a tree is approximately 5,200 years old. The bristlecone pine (Pinus longaeva) was called Prometheus and lived at Mt Wheeler in Nevada – the photo above shows another ancient bristlecone pine, but not the record-holder because Prometheus was chopped down by a geologist studying trees in 1963. Imagine being the person who killed the oldest living tree? There were 4,867 rings counted, but given the tree's harsh environment, its actual age is believed to have been closer to 5,200; even so, Prometheus has the record for the highest ring count.
5. Largest Living Tree by Volume: General Sherman
The really big giant sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum) known as the General Sherman holds the crown for largest living tree by volume. Nestled in California's Sequoia National Park, the 2100-year-old beauty stands at 271 feet (82.6 meters) tall. Remarkably, the trunk had a volume of 52,508 feet3 (1,487 meters3) in 1980 when it was last measured officially, but by 2004 it was thought to be almost 54,000 feet3 (1,530 meters3). Guinness notes that the tree is estimated to contain the equivalent of 630,096 board feet of timber, "enough to make over 5 billion matches, and its red-brown bark may be up to 61 cm (24 in) thick in parts. Its weight, including the root system, is estimated at 1,814 tonnes (4,000,000 lb)." An even larger tree by volume was the Maple Creek Tree, a giant sequoia that logged in the 1940s.
6. Most Dangerous Tree: Manchineel
We'd be nothing without trees, but some trees we'd best steer clear of. Case in point, the world's most dangerous tree, the manchineel (Hippomane mancinella). Found in the Florida Everglades and the Caribbean coast, the sap of the tree is so poisonous and acidic that the simple contact with human skin causes blisters; contact with the eyes can lead to blindness. Need cover during rain? Don't try the manchineel or you'll risk blistering as well. Guinness notes that a single bite of its small green apple-like fruit "causes blistering and severe pain, and can prove fatal. And if one of these deadly trees is burned, the resulting smoke can cause blindness if it reaches a person's eyes." (If only all trees were so wonderfully wicked, maybe we'd think twice about chopping them down so indiscriminately.)
7. Oldest-Known Human-Planted Tree: Sacred Fig
The oldest tree known to have been planted by a human rather than by Mother Nature, is a 2,300-year-old sacred fig or bo-tree (Ficus religiosa) who is known as Sri Maha Bodhiya and lives in Sri Lanka. The mother tree from which it was propagated is a sacred superstar – the famous Bodhi tree under which Siddhartha Gautama the Lord Buddha was sitting when he gained enlightenment. The whippersnapper Sri Maha Bodhiya was planted in 288 BC.
8. Oldest Living Individual Tree Roots: Old Tjikko
This spindly Norway spruce (Picea abies) that lives in Sweden has a lot going on underground – radiocarbon dating of the 13-foot-tall tree revealed that its root system has been growing for 9,550 years. Named Old Tjikko, it was originally reported in 2008 that this was the oldest tree, but in fact, it is the oldest clonal tree – meaning that it has regenerated new trunks, branches and roots over millenia rather than being a single tree of such age. As explained by Guinness: "This tree's age is related to vegetative cloning. Virtually all types of shoots and roots are capable of vegetative propagation. In this case, 9,550-year-old roots were able to generate a new tree (for the fourth time, having laid partially dormant for periods in between)."
9. Largest Albino Plants: Ghost Redwoods
The world ́s largest albino plants are the so-called "ghost redwoods," which are colorless coast redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens) squirrelled away in California. There are only 25 to 60 of these mysterious beauties that are totally lacking chlorophyll – leading to them being called ever-whites rather than evergreens. One compelling theory as to how they survive and why can be read about here: Mysterious "ghost redwoods" may survive to help nearby trees.
10. Earliest Surviving Species of Tree: Ginko Biloba
There is a reason that the leaves of the beautiful maidenhair tree (Ginkgo biloba) look so Jurassic – they've been kicking around for 160 million years or so. This earliest surviving species of tree first appeared during the Jurassic era and is known as "the oldest living fossil" and the "oldest plant genus." Fossils of the leaves Gingko ancestors have been found in sedimentary rocks of the Jurassic and Triassic periods, 135 to 210 million years old.
11. Living Tree with Greatest Firth: El Arbol del Tule
If trees had Spanx ... no, fortunately we celebrate girthsome trees, and the living one with the greatest circumference is a Montezuma cypress (Taxodium mucronatum) in Oaxaca, Mexico. Known as El Arbol del Tule, this full-figured beauty boasts a height of 137 feet (42 meters) and a girth of approximately 119 feet (36 meters) and a diameter of 38 feet (11.5 meters) at 5 feet (1.5 meters) above the ground. For perspective, if 10 mid-size cars were placed end-to-end in a circle, it would be the same girth as El Arbol. (Guinness points out that African baobab trees (Adansonia digitata) are often thought to have the largest girths, but they are often more than one tree that has fused together, rather than this single stem cypress.)
12. Greatest Tree Girth Ever: Tree of the Hundred Horses
The tree with the greatest girth ever was a European chestnut (Castanea sativa) called the Tree of the Hundred Horses (Castagno di Cento Cavalli) and measured in at 190 feet (57.9 meters) in 1780. Located on the eastern slope of Mount Etna in Sicily, the tree is the largest and oldest known chestnut tree in the world – with an impressive age of 2,000 to 4,000 years. Although it is recorded as having the largest girth ever, it no longer holds the record as the current since it has separated into three parts. The tree got its name from a legend in which a queen of Aragon and her company of one hundred knights took refuge under its protective boughs during a thunderstorm.