Photograph by Mint Images Limited, Alamy
A man in Madagascar harvests bark from a baobab tree near the village of Andavadoaka. He’ll use the bark to make rope, but baobabs on this island country off the southeast coast of Africa are also worshipped for religious reasons.
“In Madagascar, the practice of tree worship is based on the belief that ancestor spirits live in the trees and forests as well as any other natural formations that are considered peaceful,” explained Armand Randrianasolo and Alyse Kuhlman, who collaborate on sacred tree projects at the Missouri Botanical Garden.
“It is their belief that when a family member dies, their spirit resides in the natural environment to watch over their kin, relay messages to and from God, and grant blessings, wishes, and requests.”
It is common to see offerings of rum, honey, antiquated money, or candy at the base of baobab trees in Madagascar. Or Malagasy paying homage to their ancestors by wrapping the trunk or branches with white or red cloth.
(Related: “Africa's Iconic Baobab—the Vitamin Tree.”)
Dance Tree, Germany
Photograph courtesy of Landschaftsverband Westfalen-Lippe
The branches of an enormous tanzlinde, or dance tree, in Steinfurt, Germany, require the support of scaffolding. Dance trees are highly manicured and sculpted so that they can provide a sheltered place for gatherings. They are commonly time-tested, non-citrus-bearing lime species, like the one above.
In many European villages they were the center of social activity—from community dances to court sessions. The bark is strong and used for making textiles and ropes, as well as metaphors for the strength of community bonds.
And as the mythology goes, dance trees represent a cosmic connection between Earth and the heavens. The trees helped people measure the passing of time through seasonal changes and became the centerpiece of local folklore around goddesses of love. The heart-shaped leaves of the lime, also called the tilia, linden, or basswood, are a symbol of passion, and the trees attracted amorous couples seeking seclusion.
(Related photos: “Patterns in Nature—Trees.”)
Bodhi Tree, Thailand
Photograph by Natasha K, Getty Images
A sandstone Buddha sculpture is wrapped securely in the roots of a sacred bodhi tree at a monastery in Ayutthaya, Thailand.
In many cultures around the world, trees are used in creation stories and myths to explain human, and spiritual, origins. Such trees “frequently represent the axis of the universe that connects different realms of the cosmos,” writes forest ecologist Nalini Nadkarni in her book Between Earth and Sky: Our Intimate Connections to Trees. “Its branches hold up the heavens, its trunk stands in the earthly realm, and its roots descend into the underworld.”
It was a bodhi tree in what is now India that Siddhartha sat under until he reached enlightenment and emerged as the Buddha nearly 2,600 years ago. Bodhi trees often represent the Buddha in art and literature.
(Related: “Pictures: 3,000 Ancient Buddhas Unearthed in China.”)
Tule Tree, Mexico
Photograph by Infinita Highway, Getty Images
Some call this Montezuma cypress the largest tree in the world, thanks to its bulky base. According to its UNESCO World Heritage site nomination, the so-called Árbol del Tule, or Tule Tree, measures 115 feet around and 98 feet high. (The Tule Tree has not yet made the official UNESCO list.)
Its stout trunk and evergreen branches are named after the Santa Maria del Tule church in the Mexican state of Oaxaca, where the tree has grown for centuries. The possibly 2,000-year-old giant may have been planted by an Aztec priest.
The Montezuma, or Mexican, cypress is native to the southwestern U.S., Mexico, and Guatemala.
The Holy Thorn Tree of Glastonbury, England
Photograph by James Osmond, Alamy
The Holy Thorn Tree of Glastonbury—a popular Christian pilgrimage destination—used to stand like a lonely sentinel over the South England countryside.
That was until 2010, when over the course of a single night, it was chopped to pieces in what may have been an act of hatred or revenge, reported the British newspaper the Daily Mail.
All that remains is the trunk.
According to the legend, this lone thorn tree—a species of hawthorn—flourished where Jesus’s great uncle traveled with the Holy Grail after the Christian messiah’s crucification. The uncle, named Joseph of Arimathea, stopped for the night on Wearyall Hill (pictured above), stuck Jesus’s wooden staff into the earth, and woke to find a thorn tree.
Over time, other Glastonbury thorn trees were propagated from cuttings of the “original.” So when Joseph’s tree on Wearyall Hill was first cut down during the English Civil War, another from original stock was planted in its place.
The species of thorn trees found around Glastonbury is unique in that it flowers twice a year—around Easter and Christmas. Every winter a sprig from one of the trees is sent to the royal family.
Chandelier Tree, California
Photograph by Transcendental Graphics, Getty Images
A car drives through the so-called Chandelier Tree in California’s Underwood Park in the 1930s. An iconic giant, this 315-foot-tall redwood was tunneled out as a novelty during the early days of gas-powered cars.
Located in what is now called Drive-Thru Tree Park, the tree has maintained its chandelier-shaped canopy through the evolution of the automobile and the American “road trip.”
Northern California’s redwoods, which make up the tallest forest in the world, remain a popular tourist attraction. Some of the oldest redwoods on the planet are just 45 miles north in Humboldt Redwoods State Park, and a large swath of them are in Redwood National Park, 130 miles north. (Related: Video: The Tallest Tree.)
After decades of logging and development, less than 5 percent of roughly two million acres of virgin redwood forest remain.
Photograph by Nick Rains, Corbis
Morning mist enshrouds an old-growth eucalyptus in the southeastern Australian state of Victoria. The minty smell of some eucalypts is distinctly Australian. There are hundreds of species—ranging from the rusty gum to the Sydney peppermint—and nearly all of them are native to the land down under.
The variety known as the mountain ash is one of the tallest flowering plants in the world, second only to California’s coast redwoods.
Both aboriginal populations and colonial settlers put eucalyptus trees to work, using the bark and wood for canoes, weapons, tools, instruments, and construction. The oils were, and still are, used to combat viruses and fungal infections and treat wounds. And communities living in harsh dry conditions could extract water from the roots of some species.
Eucalyptus oil is used in some pagan and Wiccan practices to clear the air of bad energy. And koalas—another Australian native—still rely on eucalyptus leaves as their primary source of food.
Lone Cypress, California
Photograph by Michele Falzone, Getty Images
Possibly the world’s most photographed tree, the Lone Cypress poses on a Pacific Coast cliff near Monterey, California.
The wind-whipped Monterey cypress is one of the most prominent landmarks on the popular 17-Mile Drive in northern California—a scenic route along the coast that sees more than two million motorists annually. (Related: “Road Trip—California's Pacific Coast Highway.”)
While scientists know the tree is old, they are not sure how old. The species can live up to 400 years, but the turbulent conditions along the coast may have made this cypress appear older than it actually is.
Abraham’s Oak, West Bank
Photograph by Michael Maslan Historic Photographs, Corbis
Worshipped for centuries, Abraham’s Oak in the West Bank’s Mamre Valley near Hebron (pictured above in the 1890s) marks the spot where the founding father of Israel is said to have been visited by angels and promised a son.
This tabor oak may be up to 5,000 years old and the remnant of forests that once spread across the region. The religious story around the tree warns that it will die before the appearance of the antichrist. The main stem of the tree has been dead since 1996, but a sprout a couple of years later offered hope.
In Hebrew the words for oak, allon and elon, are associated with the word for God—el.
The oak played a prominent role in other faiths as well. It was the sacred tree of the Druids, a pre-Christian Celtic society whose traditions were, in many ways, eventually adopted by the Christian church.
(Related: “32,000-Year-Old Plant Brought Back to Life—Oldest Yet.”)
Archway Tree, California
Photograph by Ellen Isaacs, Alamy
Two sycamore trees that have been grafted together to form an arch are part of the “circus tree” collection at the Gilroy Gardens Theme Park in California.
Tied in knots, woven together like baskets, or molded into chairs, the trees at Gilroy Gardens are examples of how plants can be manipulated and shaped through a process called grafting—when a shoot or bud of one plant is inserted into the stalk of another so that they grow up as one.
Bristlecone Pine, California
Photograph by William James Warren, Science Faction/Corbis
Believed to be among the oldest living organisms on the planet, bristlecone pines are found in the American West. This one was photographed in eastern California.
Sometimes recorded at more than 5,000 years old, these slow growing pines live in dry, windy alpine regions. Their molasses-like pace of reproduction and regeneration, and narrow high-altitude range, may mean the end of the species, as climate change alters the environment and the bristlecone fails to migrate fast enough or runs out of suitable habitat.
(Related: “Earth Day Pictures: Ten Most Threatened Forests.”)
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