Triffids and Ents did not make this list, but other remarkable trees did. From a eucalyptus grove where trees have golden leaves (yes, actual gold) to a city that provided trees with their own email, here are ten mysteries, facts, and specimens that will raise your eyebrows.
10 Trees’ Strange Scientific Status
In the scientific world, animal and plant species fall under different families and orders. It’s what gives them their hard-to-pronounce Latin names. But trees don’t follow the rules. They are not a family, order, or species. Sure, different tree species exist, like oak, maple, and cherry trees. But as an entire group? Nope.
This prompts the question, “Do trees exist, scientifically speaking?” According to forest scientist Tom Kimmerer, these woody wonders do exist in a scientific sense, but they are also a little on the strange side. According to him, trees are merely a “habit” or a tall shape that plants develop to outcompete other plants for light. That’s why they can be found across the evolutionary map.
While that messes with one’s mind a little, it doesn’t diminish the fact that trees are living entities in their own right.
9 The Last Tallest Tree
An extraordinary tree was named “Menara” after scientists found it in Malaysian Borneo. In Malay, this word means “tower,” and the name is apt. Menara is a monster. Believed to be the world’s tallest flowering plant and tallest tropical tree, the yellow meranti tree (Shorea faguetiana) is wider than a football field. From top to bottom, it measures 330 feet (100.8 m)—roughly the equivalent of five bowling lanes.
The tree was discovered in 2018. A year later, a guy climbed Menara to the very top, measuring tape in hand, and confirmed that it was indeed the biggest tropical tree. It’s also heavy, weighing an astonishing 179,700 pounds (81,500 kg).
While nature is full of surprises, experts believe it’s unlikely that another tree will break Menara’s record. The bigger trees get, the more challenges they face, like pulling water and nutrients all the way up to the tallest branches. Menara seems to be the limit of what tropical trees can achieve, give or take a few feet.
8 Snoozing Silver Birches
Do trees sleep? To answer this question, scientists studied two silver birch trees (Betula pendula). One tree was in Australia, and the other in Finland. The study aimed to look for physical changes after the sun went down that might indicate slumber.
To ensure that the conditions were right, the researchers chose a time in September close to the solar equinox, when night and daytime hours were about the same. The weather was also predicted to be dry and windless, which was perfect. With nature playing along, the two trees were measured with lasers over several days.
The measurements showed that the trees relaxed their branches and leaves at night. A couple of hours before sunrise, they sagged to their lowest point, and right before sunrise, some branches returned to their daytime position. This strongly suggested that the silver birch trees experienced some form of sleep.
7 Deserts Are Surprisingly Green
In western Africa, the Sahel and Sahara deserts are not known for their abundant rainforests. Instead, when people think about these sandy landscapes, what comes to mind are endless dunes—and perhaps a camel or two. But a couple of scientists had a gut feeling that these deserts were hiding more trees than meets the eye, and they were spectacularly correct.
The researchers poured over roughly 11,000 satellite images to count the trees in an area of 500,000 square miles (1.3 million sq km). They soon realized that manual searching would take too long, so they roped in artificial intelligence to do the work. But before that could happen, the deep learning program had to be trained, and one plucky scientist accomplished that by spending a year counting 90,000 trees himself to show the AI what to do. After that, things moved quickly, and the results were shocking, even to the researchers involved.
The program revealed the presence of roughly 1.8 billion trees, and that was just in the area covered by the photographs.
6 Angkor’s Trees Are Ironic
In the 15th century, the temples of Angkor were abandoned. The thick Cambodian jungle reclaimed the complex, and today, massive tree roots and trunks fold themselves over buildings in a crushing hold. Conservationists feared that the trees were destroying the iconic structures, and they weren’t wrong. The heavy vegetation had done its fair share of damage.
Naturally, the solution was to remove any trees that clung to the buildings. To determine if this would have any impact on the complex, a 2014 study compared two different sites at Angkor called Ta Keo and Beng Mealea. Both were carved from the same sandstone, but while Beng Mealea remained in the jungle’s grip, photos showed that someone had stripped all vegetation from Ta Keo as early as 1920.
A digital analysis revealed that 79% of Beng Mealea’s original carvings were still in good condition, while over 90% of the engravings at Ta Keo were lost. Without the forest shielding it, Ta Keo’s stone surfaces were severely damaged by centuries of monsoon rains and tropical heat. As it seems, Angkor’s trees are both protecting and destroying the site.
5 These Trees Have Email
Melbourne, Australia, has about 70,000 city-owned trees. Officials wanted to keep the trees healthy and safe, especially against dangers like drought and general decline. But keeping an eye on 70,000 trees was an impossible job.
Then, someone came up with a brilliant idea. Why not ask the good citizens of Melbourne to help? The idea was to assign ID numbers and email addresses to trees so that people could report any signs of damage or disease they saw, prompting a quick response for trees that needed treatment. Things did not quite work out that way.
When the program rolled out, residents used the email addresses, but they did not send damage reports to the City. Instead, they wrote love letters to the trees, complimenting their looks or even thanking the trees for times when they kept people safe during undesirable weather.
Even though the slew of fan mail was never the city’s intention, Melbourne officials clearly took the whole thing in good humor as some of the trees “wrote” back to their admirers.
4 Fake WWI Spy Trees
World War I pushed the Allies to get creative, especially when it came to gathering intelligence at the frontlines. But spying on the enemy in the worst combat zones wasn’t easy. In 1915, the French got a brilliant idea. Why not plant fake trees on the frontlines? A soldier could hide inside the hollow trunk and survey the land through peepholes and periscopes.
The sheer effort that went into making these trees is mind-boggling. The first step was to find a real tree. Under the cover of night, engineers would photograph and sketch the tree and also take measurements. This information was passed on to artists who made a life-size replica of the tree in exact detail, using wood and “bark” made from metal and crushed seashells.
On the inside, the fake tree was armored, and a rope ladder led to a high wooden seat. Once the botanical bunker was complete, the engineers waited for a dark night and carried it to where the real tree stood, which was removed so that the spy post could be planted in its place. By morning, the enemy was unaware that the tree was now fake and hid a soldier.
3 Trees with Golden Leaves
In Western Australia, a couple of miles north of the town of Kalgoorlie sits a eucalyptus grove. At first glance, they look like regular trees, but in 2013, scientists discovered their leaves contained gold particles.
This wasn’t an accidental discovery. In Australia, thick layers of sediment and rock can hide precious minerals, sometimes too well. Searching for a better way to find gold, the researchers remembered hearing from mining engineers that eucalyptus roots often found their way deep into gold mines. Keeping this in mind and knowing that plants can extract minerals from the soil and transport them to their leaves, the team decided to test eucalyptus leaves for gold particles that might indicate the presence of underground gold deposits.
The eucalyptus grove stands on a dusty patch of land that shows no sign of hidden treasure. However, the gold specks in their leaves led to the discovery of deposits at a depth of 100 feet (30.5 m), confirming an effective, if not bizarre, way to prospect for gold.
2 The Floating Trunk Mystery
Crater Lake in Oregon is special for many reasons. It’s the deepest lake in the United States, and the water is incredibly blue. There is also a 120-year-old mystery, give or take a few years, that started in 1896 when Joseph Diller discovered a tree trunk bobbing in the water.
The 30-foot (9-meter) tall stump behaved strangely. It floated upright, not horizontally like trees normally do. It was also incredibly buoyant; when a ranger stood on the tree in 1930, it supported his whole weight without sinking.
The “Old Man of the Lake,” as some call it, still confounds scientists. Logically, the stump should move with the wind, but it’s not unheard of for the Old Man to cross the lake while going against the wind. But the weirdest part is that it keeps circling back to the upright floating. With its length and diameter, it should be positioned horizontally in the water. By insisting otherwise, the tree is defying physics, and nobody can explain how or why.
1 Trees Eat Meat
While a pine will never pounce on a person, trees are not entirely vegetarian. This might come as a surprise to some, considering that, on the surface, all they seem to need are sunlight, water, and soil. But below the surface, it’s a stranger story.
Trees can make their own simple sugars, but they cannot make minerals like sodium, calcium, and potassium—all essential things they need to survive. Fungi in the ground produce these minerals when they break down proteins and fats from animal remains. Fungi, in turn, cannot make their own simple sugars. So, trees and fungi struck a deal.
The fungi attach themselves to the roots of a tree, and this enables a two-way trade. The tree feeds the fungi sugars. And since the fungi provide animal-derived minerals, one can say that trees are indirectly snacking on animal carcasses.