From the world's largest to ones that were here long before the Mayflower, these noble trees are nothing less than U.S. national treasures.
While they aren't celebrated as much as they should be, few things are as iconic as a country's trees. They stand witness to history, being rooted in place sometimes for thousands of years, as generations of people come and go. They act as landmarks; they are the centers around which stories take place. They are workhorses for the environment and give us shade and food. We would be nowhere without them; yet they're not always recognized as the living monuments and eco-superheroes that they are! So in an effort to show the trees some love, we've put together a who's who of spectacular specimens of trees in The States. All trees are worthy of respect; but the following stand out as just a few of the many especially significant ones.
1. Angel Oak: The perfect southern host
The massive southern live oak (pictured above) on Johns Island near Charleston, South Carolina, may not be the oldest or largest tree in the county (we'll get to those in a bit), but in terms of grandeur, it's hard to beat. Plus, 400 to 500 years under its belt isn't too shabby.
The storybook beauty is more than 66 feet tall, which is impressive for a live oak since they are known for growing out more than up. Proof can be seen in Its longest branch, an arm that stretches out a remarkable 187 feet. The canopy produces 17,200 square feet of shade!
The tree was named for the family that once owned the state, Justus and Martha Waight Angel, and is now the property of the City of Charleston. Local lore suggests that the ghosts of former slaves hover around the tree like angels. That the tree has survived so many natural disasters and plans for land development may prove that it has its own angels after all.
2. Survivor Tree: The callery pear that withstood 9/11
When 9/11 workers discovered the charred remains of this callery pear tree under rubble for a month, they didn't give up hope. With just a single branch showing signs of life, this perseverant tree was sent for convalescence under the care of the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation. After nine years of rehab at a Bronx nursery, the so-called Survivor Tree was planted at the National 9/11 Memorial & Museum, where it thrives amongst a solemn place that is filled with both memories and life. "New, smooth limbs extended from the gnarled stumps, creating a visible demarcation between the tree’s past and present," notes the Museum. "Today, the tree stands as a living reminder of resilience, survival and rebirth."
3. Wi’áaşal: A giant, ancient sacred oak
In Temecula, California, on the reservation of the Pechanga Band of Luiseños Indians, the Great Oak – known as Wi’áaşal by Pechanga people – stands grand and sacred. From the Pechanga website:To the Pechanga people, the land and the Great Oak that stands upon it carry meaning that transcends physical presence. The Great Oak has come to embody the identity and character of the Pechanga Band: strength, wisdom, longevity and determination.
This incredible tree is known as the largest naturally grown indigenous coast live oak (Quercus agrifolia) in the West, a place of many storied oaks (like the one pictured above which lives in Montana de Oro State Park, central California).
With a trunk exceeding 20 feet in circumference, and a height of 100 feet, Wi’áaşal’s largest branches touch the ground, “supporting the tree’s weight and creating a sheltering canopy for countless generations of people and animals.” The Great Oak is also impressive in age; at over 1,000 years old (and up to 2,000, say some), it is one of the oldest living oak trees in the United States.
And even so, the tree continues to bear acorns, an important food for Californians for millennia before the Europeans appeared. When diminutive saplings sprout beneath the canopy, they are transplanted into pots. Once mature enough, Wi’áaşal’s “children” are planted in other places on the reservation, ensuring many generations of Wi’áaşal to come. If only all trees were respected thusly. See Wi’áaşal in the video to the left.
4. Jackson Oak: The tree that owns itself
This tree in Athens, Georgia has more property than many an American. The Tree That Owns Itself is a white oak (Quercus alba) that possesses legal ownership of itself and the land within eight feet of its base. Also known as the Jackson Oak, the original tree was so beloved by the man who owned the land, William H. Jackson, that he granted it autonomy upon his death. From the deed, according to lore: “For and in consideration of the great love I bear this tree and the great desire I have for its protection for all time, I convey entire possession of itself and all land within eight feet of the tree on all sides" -William H. Jackson Swoon! Sadly, the original tree, which dated to some time between the mid-16th and late 18th century, toppled in a windstorm in 1942. Undaunted, residents of Athens started a new tree from an acorn of the papa tree and planted it in the same spot, giving rise to the Son of The Tree That Owns Itself.
5. Chandelier Tree: An ancient drive-through giant
Hey, here's an idea! Let's carve out a huge hole in the middle of a ~2,000-year-old tree to spark automobile tourism! Sigh. Though I suppose it's better than just cutting the grand coast redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) down for lumber, a fate that happened to so many of California's arboreal giants during the 19th century. Amazingly, some of the tunnel trees have managed to survive their butchery, like the Chandelier Tree, a noble beauty that lives in a private redwood grove in Leggett, California. At 276-feet high and 16-feet in diameter, the tree's graceful branches are said to resemble a chandelier; albeit a chandelier with a big missing chunk. Thankfully we no longer remove giant essential parts from trees that have survived for 2,000 years.
6. Endicott Pear: Bearing fruit since 1630
The first cultivated tree to be planted by European settlers, this stalwart European pear (Pyrus communis) was planted by Massachusetts Bay Colony Governor John Endecott in the 1630s. The pear sapling was imported from across the Atlantic; upon its planting, Endicott said: "I hope the tree will love the soil of the old world and no doubt when we have gone the tree will still be alive." Almost 400 years later and this enduring tree is not only still alive, but continues to bear fruit as well.
7. General Sherman: The largest tree alive
The gentlest of giants, this massive majesty from California's Sequoia National Park is the largest, by volume, known living single stem tree in the world. Named the General Sherman, this giant sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum) is neither the tallest known living tree, nor is it the widest or oldest – but with its height of 275 feet, diameter of 25 feet and estimated bole volume of 52,513 cubic feet, it's the most voluminous. And with a wise old age of 2,300 to 2,700 years, it is also one of the longest-lived of all trees to grace the globe. #respect
8. Hangman's Elm: Manhattan's oldest tree
The stately English elm (Ulmus minor) that anchors the northwest corner of New York City's Washington Square has a grim name but likely one that is apocryphal. Known as the Hangman's Elm or The Hanging Tree, there are no public records of actual executions from the tree, which was part of a private farm until the the city purchased the land in 1827 and added to the Square in 1827. That said, the area was found to be the burial grounds for slaves who had died from yellow fever. The impressive elm stands 110-feet tall and has a diameter of 56 inches. In 1989, the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation revealed that the tree was 310 years old, making it the oldest known tree in Manhattan.
9. Hyperion: The world's tallest tree
This tall drink of water, Hyperion, beats all other living trees on the planet when it comes to height. The coast redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) that tops the charts at 379+ feet was discovered by Chris Atkins and Michael Taylor in California's Redwood National Park in 2006. Hyperion is not just tall, but a true survivor, living on a hillside, rather than the more-typical alluvial flat, with 96 percent of the surrounding area having been logged of its original coast redwood growth. Based on the nearby clear-cut, experts believe it was just a few weeks away from being cut down. Phew. Hyperion is still on the young side – a mere 600 years old – and will likely continue to reach new heights.
10. Bennett Juniper: The oldest known juniper in America
This grand juniper (Juniperus grandis) in the Stanislaus National Forest, Tuolumne County, California is the largest and oldest known Juniper in the country. Named after the 19th century naturalist, Clarence Bennett, the old gnarled beauty is more than 80 feet tall. Several estimates put its age at 3,000 years old, but since the trunk is hollow it could be even older. One expert suggested it may be as old as 6,000! Amazingly, the Bennett juniper and its juniper relatives endure the freezing temperatures, strong winds, poor soil and low moisture of their habitat high in the Sierra Nevada, yet they persist ... and with gusto.
11. Lone Cypress: The most photographed tree in North America
What does it take to become the most photographed tree on the continent? Christopher Reynolds’ LA Times description of California’s famously photogenic Lone Cypress may hold the answer:
"It stands along famously scenic 17-Mile Drive, raked by wind, swaddled in fog, clinging to its wave-lashed granite pedestal like God's own advertisement for rugged individualism."
Indeed, the 250ish-year-old Monterey cypress (Cupressus macrocarpa) might act as muse for many: All alone on the Pebble Beach bluff, defying the elements and maintaining its elegant integrity in the face of it all. Even if it is, as Reynolds writes, a “spindly old conifer, small for its species, scarred by a long-ago arson,” and supported by half-hidden steel cables. There is no denying its beauty … as millions of photographs can confirm.
12. Methuselah: One of the world's oldest trees
Hello, old timer! The great basin bristlecone pine (Pinus longaeva) called Methuselah lives hidden in the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest of the White Mountains in the Inyo National Forest, California. With an age of around 4,700 years, the forest service decided to keep the ancient organism's location a secret to protect it from, you know, humans. The one pictured here could be Methuselah, or could be a relative from the same general area – it's probably best if nobody ever knows.
13. Pando: The trembling giant
In Utah's Fishlake National Forest, a grove of quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides) flutters and quivers; all 47,000 members of a single organism. The Trembling Giant is also known as Pando, Latin for "I spread." This clonal colony is a marvel; all 47,000 trees are genetically identical and spring forth from a single root system, making it the most massive single organism known to man. (The largest single living organism is a giant carpet of fungal mats in Oregon, but Pando outweighs all other with its weight of more than 6,000 tonnes.) Spreading out over nearly 110 acres, it's hard not to be in awe of this giant rustling being, imagine the sound alone. And then to really put things into perspective, consider this: Scientists estimate Pando to be anywhere from 80,000 to one million years old, making it one of the oldest, if not the oldest, living organism on the planet.
14. Seven Sisters Oak: The tree that's a president
This stately lady, the Seven Sisters Oak, is a southern live oak (Quercus virginiana) in Lewisberg, Louisiana, that is thought to be around 1,500 years old. Named by Carole Hendry Doby, one of seven sisters, the tree also has seven main branches radiating out from the center. And it is huge. With a trunk that measures more than 38 feet in circumference, it is the largest certified southern live oak tree. It is also the National Champion on the National Register of Big Trees and the Champion Oak of Louisiana, according to the Louisiana Forestry Association. And because trees can have jobs too, Seven Sisters currently resides as president of the Live Oak Society, an honor earned by being the largest live oak registered by the society. Thank you for your service, Madam President!
15. Circus Trees: A folk art haven for the arboreal set
While it might seem that bending trees into submission may not have the tree's best interests at heart, horticulturist Axel Erlandson seemed to have nothing but love for his babies. Born in Sweden in 1885, Erlandson moved to the United States at a young age and went on to become a farmer in California. Having studied trees closely, he began shaping them according to the natural process of inosculation, in which tree branches naturally unite. WIth a combination of grafting and bending to coax the trees into whimsical forms, The Tree Circus was born. Even though he clearly employed his knowledge of horticulture, he often said that his only secret to growing tree sculptures was talking to them. While many of the original trees met a sad fate before horticulture enthusiast Michael Bonfante became their caretaker. He relocated the trees to their current spot, Gilroy Gardens, in 1985; 25 of Erlandson's original trees can be visited there – and talked to! – including his first, the "Four Legged Giant."