With more than 4.5 million articles, Wikipedia is an invaluable resource, whether you’re throwing a term paper together at the last minute, or finally compiling a definitive catalogue of all the kites Charlie Brown lost over the years. But follow enough links, and you get sucked into some seriously strange places. We explore some of Wikipedia’s oddities in our 4,591,075-week series, Wiki Wormhole.
This week’s entry: List of Famous Trees
What it’s about: While Groot is currently having his moment in the spotlight, he’s far from the only tree of renown. Trees across the world have risen to fame for one reason or another—some because of their size or age, some because they mark the site of some historic event—and naturally, Wikipedia is there to list them.
Strangest fact: Trees have a surprising amount of religious significance. The Cedars Of God in northern Lebanon appear in the Bible more than 70 times, are mentioned in the Epic Of Gilgamesh, and their timber was prized by Alexander The Great and Julius Caesar, was used by the Egyptians for shipbuilding and the Ottomans for railway construction, and King Solomon supposedly cut down cedars to build the First Temple in Jerusalem, before Roman Emperor Hadrian made them protected woodlands. Elsewhere in Lebanon are the Sisters Olive Trees Of Noah, some of the many contenders for oldest tree in the world, as local legend claims they’re five or six thousand years old, and supposedly provided the olive branch to Noah during the Great Flood. The Buddha is said to have gained enlightenment while sitting under a fig tree known as the Bodhi Tree. While it no longer exists, new tree was planted on the same site, and a tree in Sri Lanka is said to have been grown from one of the Bodhi Tree’s branches. Closer to home, the Hare Krishna movement was started under an elm tree in New York’s Tomkins Square Park.
Biggest controversy: There are numerous contenders for oldest tree in the world—with the winner most likely Earth’s oldest living organism. But there’s an open debate on what exactly counts. While some varieties of tree grow as individuals, with distinct DNA, some trees are part of clonal colonies, a family of genetically identical plants. Clonal trees may come and go, but the root systems often persist and sprout new trees. A group of 47,000 aspen trees in Utah, nicknamed Pando, is a single clonal colony, which is considered both the heaviest known organism at 6 million kilograms, and a contender for oldest, at an estimated 80,000 years old. Old Tjikko in Norway is the oldest known individual clonal tree, a relative spring chicken at 9,550. A bristlecone pine in California known as Methuselah was considered the oldest non-clonal organism, at 4,846 years, until a 5,065-year-old bristlecone was found nearby. Sharing the same name is a Judean date palm which was grown from a 2,000-year-old preserved seed, the oldest seed ever planted. That variety of palm had been extinct for 1,800 years when the species was resurrected, Jurassic Park-style.
Thing we were happiest to learn: Your secret neighborhood club wasn’t the only organization founded in a tree. As mentioned above, the Hare Krishna faith was started under a tree in Manhattan. On that same island in 1792, 24 stockbrokers convened under a buttonwood and formed what would eventually be known as the New York Stock Exchange. Australia’s Labor Party was founded under what became known as the Tree of Knowledge, which was poisoned by vandals in 2006. Miloš Obrenović also started the Second Serbian Uprising under a tree, eventually winning his country’s partial independence from the Ottoman Empire.
Thing we were unhappiest to learn: Some of these famous trees are no longer with us. Besides the replacement Bodhi Tree, the Royal Oak, which hid King Charles II as he fled the Roundheads in 1651, was gradually destroyed by tourists cutting branches off as souvenirs, and a descendent of the tree was planted in its place. The Guilty Scholartree, on which Emperor Chongzhen, the last ruler of the Ming Dynasty, hanged himself, was uprooted during the Cultural Revolution, and has since been replaced by a similar tree. France’s Danger Tree, which was a landmark for troops during the Battle Of The Somme in WWI, and a site of heavy casualties, was destroyed by German artillery fire during that battle, and a concrete replica was erected as a memorial. The Joshua Tree featured on the U2 album of the same name, fell in 2000. In the past few years, storms have also destroyed a tree featured in Anne Frank’s diary; a nameless but impressive 1,000-year-old ginkgo tree in Japan; the Encino Oak Tree, thought to be the oldest tree in Los Angeles; and the National Christmas Tree in Washington, D.C. A storm in 1856 knocked down the Charter Oak, a tree in which Connecticut’s colonial charter was hidden from the British in 1687, who wanted to rewrite it to give more control to the crown. When the tree fell, wood was used to make the governor’s desk, chairs for the heads of each house of the state legislature, and a wooden baseball.
Also noteworthy: While some celebrities have to be content with having a sandwich named after them, the truly famous get their own tree. Caesarsboom in Belgium is a tree Julius Caesar was said to have tethered his horse to while conquering the area. The Tree Of Hippocrates is where the father of medicine supposedly taught his students to do no harm. The Queen Elizabeth Oak marks the spot where Elizabeth I was told she had ascended to the throne. The Washington Oak marks a battlefield where George Washington met his redcoated opponents at the Battle Of Princeton in 1777. And, perhaps most historically significant, Augusta, Georgia’s Eisenhower Tree is an obstacle on that town’s famous golf course that particularly bedeviled the former Supreme Allied Commander.
Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: A tree also marked the site of the Treaty Of Big Tree, signed in what’s now Geneseo, New York, between the Seneca and the United States, allowing the U.S. to settle the western part of the state. The treaty was actually one part of a larger deal, known as the Holland Purchase, in which western New York was purchased from the Commonwealth Of Massachusetts. Before the Constitution allowed for the addition of new states to the Union, the original 13 colonies intended to expand each individual colony westward across the Appalachians. Massachusetts, hemmed in by other states, had not-terribly-realistic ideas about continuing the state on the other side of New York and expanding ever westward.
Further down the wormhole: To paraphrase Mitt Romney, trees are people, my friend. Athens, Georgia, is home to The Tree That Owns Itself, which according to local custom, owns itself and the land extending 8 feet in every direction from its trunk. The oak tree was a particular favorite of Colonel William Henry Jackson, who upon his death in the 1820s, left the tree to itself in his will. The tree was felled in a windstorm in 1942, but an acorn from the original tree was planted in the same spot, and the resulting tree assumed ownership of itself and the plot of land. While in 2014, the tree is an interesting bit of local color, in the 1820s, it had to be an especially cruel twist of the knife for the 60 percent of Georgia’s population who were slaves, and had to deal with having less legal standing than a tree. Jackson’s father, James Jackson, was a Revolutionary War veteran who went on to serve in the first-ever House Of Representatives and later the U.S. Senate. (The elder Jackson was pro-slavery, but there is no record of whether his son owned slaves or what the father’s position was on deciduous emancipation.) The elder Jackson was also duelist, renowned for his temper. We’ll look at the practice of dueling next week.