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Why Europeans Care

  How Dare They Do This   Tree Activism: Europe  
  European Tree Heritage   Tree Activism: North America & Australia  

European Tree Heritage

In every European country, ancient trees are celebrated and protected as a combined cultural – natural heritage. Many thousands of examples exist of named trees with special characters and histories that are widely celebrated. Yet in colonial countries such as Canada, the global wood products industry is exterminating big trees with no regard for their cultural – natural value. Activists must stand between the chainsaws and the veteran Northwest Coast trees; between industrial "progress" – as defined by capitalist economics – and the ancient rainforest that has taken much of human history to evolve. Canada is infested by the world's largest and most voracious logging industry and the only way to save the country's big trees from destruction is to impose a global ban on old growth wood products.


An old English oak
Veteran Trees (Click to enlarge)


Ancient olive tree, 2007.
Puglia, Italy

In the English language, many words exist to describe ancient trees, including: big trees, mighty trees, patriarch trees, veteran trees, mammoth trees, sentinel trees, landmark trees, temple trees, venerable trees, heritage trees, historical trees, monumental trees, monarch trees and champion trees. Better yet in other languages is the German "Naturdenkmaeler," the Dutch "Natuurmonument," and the Swedish "Naturminne" to impart a conservation ethic to trees as cultural heritage, such as the treasured German Ivenacker Oaks tributed on a postage stamp (right).

In the 19th century Fritz Reuter dedicated a poem to an Ivenacker oak: "I know an oak tree who stands near the sea, the north wind roars through his gnarly branches; proudly he stretches the mighty crest upwards, like it has done for a thousand years." Aloys Bernatzky, a contemporary author, writes: "From the tree, we learn to see our lives as part of growth and decaying. It is an image and symbol of peace on earth." (Vom Baum lernen wir, unser Leben als Teil des Werdens und Vergehens zu sehen. Er ist Abbild und Sinnbild des Friedens auf Erden).


In Italy a conservation initiative was taken in 2004 to make the historic value of trees more widely known, including protection and exploitation issues. An international conference was organized at the University of Torino: The Trees of History. In Mediterranean countries, olive trees can live up to 2,000 years and are an integral part of cultural heritage. Strict new laws have been passed in Italy to punish thieves who uproot trees from ancient olive groves in southern Italy to supply a lucrative black market in gnarled old trees as ornaments. Olive trees such as those found in Pugia can fetch thousands of euros (left).

Naturdenkmaeler. Stamp.
Ivenack Oak Society


A Wildlife Tree (Click to enlarge)
Veteran Trees (Ancient Tree Forum)


Today many European countries are taking part in a movement to recognize and honour the ecological value of big trees as the oldest living beings in the natural landscape. A widespread belief is that "The conservation and protection of ancient trees is the biggest obligation to European biodiversity" Ancient Tree Forum.

In Britain during the last 50 years, 45 percent of the semi natural woodland has been cleared or converted into plantations, leaving a dearth of "wildlife trees" (left). A management guidebook has been published by the Ancient Tree Forum and tree heritage is being recorded for a national database: "All veteran trees are of historic interest; each is a survivor from the past, a relic of a former landscape" Veteran Trees.


Henry William Burgess (far left) was landscape painter to William IV of England. In 1827 he published 54 lithographs of big trees in a book entitled "Eidodendron" (below). A dedication to the king began with "No Tree in all the Grove but has it's Charms." A number of the trees were portrayed as individuals with royal identities such as the "King Oak of Windsor Forest" (left). The illustrations were reproduced as book plates with the help of C. Hullmandel, one of the earliest practitioners of lithography in England. Burgess emphasized the impressionistic qualities of light in his tree portraits and his work is often compared to that of his well known contempories, the landscape painters Constable and Turner.


Eidodendron - Views of the General Character and Appearance of
Trees Foreign & Indigenous as Connected with Picturesque Scenery, 1827

Queen Charlotte's Tree Windsor Forest

Beech Trees
Knowle Park

Fallen Tree
Bolton Park

Old Yew

Horse Chestnut Trees
Bishops Walk

Queen Ann Tree
Windsor Forest

Old Beech Tree
Oaks Surry

Old Oak
Aloey Forest


About 1680 the Reverend Josiah Pullen, vice principal of Magdalen Hall at Oxford University from 1656 until his death in 1714, planted an elm tree which came to be known as "Joe Pullen's Tree." In 1847 the land on which the tree stood was sold and the new owner decided to chop the landmark tree down for timber. A protest letter against this "outrage" was published in the Oxford Journal warning "Oxford is about to lose one of the most familiar, the most cherished, and the most venerable memorials." The writer described "the threatened desecration (less I cannot call it)" and the "obliteration of so time honored, so classical, a feature from the scenery of Oxford" as a "melancholy act of destruction." On 24 February 1847 a woman (recorded as Mrs Wright) began an illustration of the tree (right) when the work on felling the lofty elm had just started. This early instance of art being used to stop ancient tree destruction was successful and the tree was spared. Over the years many tributes and poems were written about the famous elm of Headington in Oxfordshire: Joe Pullen's Tree.

But c. 1849 a wall was built near the tree, damaging its roots and making it susceptible to windblow and root rot. By 1894 it had become necessary to cut down the beloved 200 year old tree but the stump was carefully preserved until 1909 when vandals set it on fire and destroyed it.


Joe Pullen's Tree, Oxford, 1847.
Illustration by Mrs Wright


Times Literary Supplement Tree Logo
by Peter Brookes

The tree of knowledge is
a well known visual icon in
many cultures around the
world. As a secular motif,
an ancient knarled oak tree
is often used to symbolize
the western tradition of
learning and scholarship.
It is regrettable that the TLS
has not adopted a non
wood publishing policy.


In Europe, trees have long been preserved for specific social purposes. The yew tree, for example, was regarded as sacred and protected in churchyards while oaks were cultivated as picturesque elements on the private hunting estates of the nobility. Today these trees are carefully preserved as nature monuments. By contrast, in British Columbia, there is no protection from the logging industry for the ancient trees which are a vital part of the cultural heritage of the indigenous peoples. Even the big cedars, the aboriginal "Trees of Life" are threatened with extermination: A Vanishing Heritage.


Today in Britain landholders and public agencies are working together to protect outstanding trees and woodland heritage. The British Tree Council seeks protected status for trees of special cultural value such as the Great Lime of Holker Hall (right). See: Green Monuments Campaign. The venerated tree is about 400 years old and the girth of its huge fluted trunk is 25.9 ft (7.9 m). In 2002 the Tree Council designated the Holker Lime one of 50 great British trees, to commemorate Queen Elizabeth's Golden Jubilee. When English author Bill Bryson called for the protection of Britain's ancient trees and woods in an address in 2005 to the All Party Parliamentary Group on Conservation and Wildlife, he made the important point:

Ancient trees and woods are vitally important markers of our
rich cultural heritage. We wouldn't suggest that a new road
should be carved through a cathedral, so why do we still
allow ancient trees and woods to be destroyed?


Holker Lime, England.
Photo: Floato


Britain claims to have more ancient trees than any other country in northern Europe. Concerned over the need to educate the public about this nature heritage, in 2007 the Woodland Trust began a contest to search for and identify the oldest trees: Ancient Tree Hunt. To launch the campaign, former Lara Croft model Nell McAndrew and Rupert Bear posed together hugging an ancient tree (left). According to Woodland Trust, 92 percent of Brits say it is as important to preserve ancient trees as it is ancient human architecture.

"Tallest Tree in UK Dughall Mhor."
Scone Palace, Perthshire, Scotland


Rupert finds an ancient tree.
Ancient Tree Hunt, Woodland Trust

Many British ancient trees exist thanks to their location on private estates, such as the Royal Hunting Forests set up by William the Conqueror in 1066. It is ironic that while the British are celebrating their big tree heritage at home, in former colonies such as British Columbia, they condone the commercial extermination of ancient trees, thereby ruining the aboriginal cultural heritage of First Nations. Already in early colonial history, BC's amazingly tall and straight native Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) provided the masts for the Royal Navy during the imperial age of conquest. It was named for David Douglas (1799 - 1834), a Scottish botanist who collected seeds from the native Northwest Coast species in Oregon and sent them home to be planted at Scone Palace in Perthshire. Today one seed has grown to a 65 m tree, the tallest in Britain (left).


The tallest tree ever climbed and confirmed in the UK is the Stronardon Douglas fir (below), near Dunans castle in Argyllshire. Planted in 1848 also from a seed collected by botanist David Douglas in Oregon, it was measured in 2009 at 63.79 m (209 ft) high. The Stronardon fir has been classified as a "Champion Tree" by the Tree Register, a charity that records the notable and ancient trees in Britain and Ireland and whose patron is the Prince of Wales.

Stronardon Douglas fir, Scotland, 2009.
Photo: Lukasz Warzecha


Stronardon Douglas Fir, Scotland, 2009.
Photo: Lukasz Warzecha (Click to enlarge)

The height of the Stronardon fir is compared to the famous Nelson's Column in London (above). The Forestry Commission records another 64 m Douglas fir as one of the tallest in the UK, at Reelig Glen Wood, Moniack in the Highlands.


Big trees are especially revered in the Netherlands: Dutch trees have been given names and personalities marking their individual histories. The oldest and rarest trees are between 400 and 450 years old but most are between 100 and 200 years old. Among the oldest Douglas firs in Europe are the 150 year old specimens at the Royal Palace Het Loo in the Dutch province of Gelderland (right). When William III built the palace in 1680, oak trees were planted which today are the oldest oaks in the Netherlands. In about 1870 Douglas firs were planted with seeds sent from the Northwest Coast. In 2007 Jeroen Philippona measured one fir at 49 m, the tallest tree in the Netherlands. Unlike the 900 year old native giants of Cathedral Grove, the Dutch Douglas fir trees at Het Loo are protected as treasures.

Anne Frank Tree restoration, 2008.
Ann Frank Museum, Amsterdam


Douglas firs, Het Loo Palace, Nl.
Photo: Jeroen Philippona

One Dutch tree that has been much in the news in is the "Anne Frank Tree" in Amsterdam (left). The chestnut tree had comforted the girl while she hid from Nazis in WWII and she described it in her diary: "From my favorite spot on the floor I look up at the blue sky and the bare chestnut tree. . . As long as this exists . . . and I may live to see it, this sunshine, the cloudless skies - while this lasts I cannot be unhappy." Now diseased, Amsterdam officials planned to cut down the 150 year old tree on 21 November 2007 but protesters claimed its historic value made it imperative to preserve the chestnut at all costs. A website has been dedicated to this aim: Anne Frank Tree.


Oak of Guillotin, Bretagne, France.
Photo: Yannick Meteau

One of the oldest and biggest trees in France, it is also a religious monument. From an 1830 description of the tree, Le Vieux Chene D'Allouville: "In the cemetery of Allouville, one can see this oak, one of the wonders of France. At its base it is 15.24 meters in circumference and at the height of a human, it is 7.32 meters. This tree is more than 900 years old. Since 1696, the hollow base of the tree has been used as a little shrine to the Holy Mary. During the French revolution, some wanted to burn the tree, but the villagers opposed this. The tree is a greater monument than any building, and many generations of people may find a moment to reflect at its chapel and under its foliage."


One of the legendary trees of France is the Oak of Guillotin (left), with a height of 20 m and a girth of 9.65 m. It stands in the Forest of Brocéliande, Bretagnes, near the village of Concoret. The Chapel Oak (below) is the most famous tree of France, located in Allouville - Bellefosse, a small village near Rouen in Normandy.

Chapel Oak of Allouville-Bellefosse.
Old postcard


La cattedrale vegetale, by Giuliano Mauri.
Photo: Aldo Fedele


It is indeed appropriate that in Italy, home of some of the most magnificent historic cathedrals in the world, an attempt was made to create a "Cathedral of Nature" (left) by a contemporary artist. Designed for an international art exhibit in the Sella Valley of the northern Italian Province of Trento, the work by Giuliano Mauri is meant to evoke the idea of "Arte Natura" or the symbiosis between art and nature. See: Arte Sella.

"La cattedrale vegetale" is the same size as a real Gothic cathedral and is composed of three naves, each formed by 80 columns of intertwined branches. Presumably, it fulfills one of the founding principles of Arte Sella; "Nature should be defended as the vessel for our memories." Perhaps because there are no longer ancient groves of monumental trees in Italy, art takes the place of nature. Yet no art or science can recreate the endangered biodiversity of the naturally magnificent Cathedral Grove in British Columbia.


Over many centuries Germans have evolved a close relationship with trees. The German forest (der deutsche Wald) is the landscape most associated with German history and national identity. The Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich often painted gnarled old oak trees (right) and already in 1813, the German philosopher Ludwig Klages appealed for the protection of Germany's ancient trees. Also the German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt warned: "Be respectful of the tree. It is a singular wonder." Many writers, such as Herman Hesse, have described the primordial force of statuesque old trees in the German landscape: "Trees are sanctuaries. Someone, who knows to talk to them, who knows to listen to them, will learn the truth. They don't preach doctrines or formulas, they preach - not concerned about details - the fundamental law of life."


Painting by C. D. Friedrich, 1811.
Oskar Reinhart Foundation


Ivenack Oaks, Mecklenburg Vorpommern.
Photo: Jeroen Pater

The oak trees of Ivenack are a remnant of an ancient type of grazed forest with an open park like character that became a hunting estate in the 18th century. The trees are famous in Germany - not only for their exceptional age and size - but also for the legends and myths which describe their history: "Long ago, there was in Ivenack a Cistercian Nunnery. Seven nuns were said to have broken their vow of faith and as punishment they were transformed into oaks. Not until 1000 years have passed will the first of the nuns be released and then the oak tree will die. A hundred years later, the second nun will be released and this will continue each century until all of the nuns have been released."


Certain trees were believed to be a medium of prophecy and knowledge: large old oaks were the dwelling places of woodland spirits. The ancient "Ivenack Oak" (left) grows in the medieval German forest of Ivenack in Mecklenburg Vorpommern. With a massive trunk over 15 m, "Ivenack Oak" is the biggest German oak and in terms of volume the biggest oak in Europe.

In 1900, there were eleven living Ivenack oaks, but today only six remain. Until recently, it was believed that these six oaks were between 600 and 1200 years old, but new tree ring research indicates an age of 550 to 830 years. The Ivenack oaks are preserved and cared for as "nature monuments" Ivenack Oak Society. There are many similar societies dedicated to protecting ancient trees and woods in Europe which are often associated with popular nature centres.

Ivenack Oaks.
Mecklenburg Vorpommern


Ekebyhov Eken, Sweden.
Photo: Jeroen Pater


Temple at Uppsala.
Wood engraving, 1555

None of the sacred groves so important to Scandinavian mythology survive. The most famous sacred grove of Northern Europe was at the Temple at Uppsala in Old Uppsala, where every tree was considered sacred. A wood engraving of the tree appears in a 1555 text on Scandinavia by Olaus Magnus (above). Also the economic value of trees was protected, for the construction of war ships, for example. Already in 1558 the King of Sweden, Gustav Vasa, declared that all oaks were the property of the royal navy and Swedish State. The Ekebyhov Eken (left), which grows in a small village southwest of Stockholm, is the second largest oak in Sweden and it is thought to be one of the oldest, from 500 to 600 years in age.


The renowned Rumskalla Oak in Sweden (right), also known as Kvill eken, is located near the village of Vimmerby, hometown of Astrid Lindgren, author of Pippi Langstroem. The gnarled oak has a large hollow trunk of 14.4 m in circumference: the biggest in Europe. With an estimated age of 850 to 1000 years, Rumskalla is one of the few big trees that remain in Sweden. It grows in a traditional open grazed forest, a biological habitat which survived longer in Sweden than on the Continent and is protected today as a cultural landscape. The Rumskalla Oak was described as remarkable already some 230 years ago, in a book by M. Craelius published in 1772: "Foersoek till ett landskaps beskrivning." Inspired by the Rumskalla Oak, in 1949 the Swedish poet Artur Lindqvist wrote: "Male tree, He brooder, fighter, prepared to become old and solitary, God tree and gallow tree, loved by raven, with the leaves midsummer late . . . "


Rumskalla Oak.
Vimmerby, Sweden

  Due to industrial forestry less than four percent of Sweden's old growth forests survive. In 2004 the Swedish government initiated a protection project to identify surviving ancient trees with conservation values and environmental heritage: Action Plan for Trees. A recent government report describes the importance of ancient oaks to biodiversity: "Among the old trees, the oak is exceptional. No other tree has so many associated species. Almost 1500 species of fungi, lichens, insects and other invertebrates have the oak as their main habitat. Every individual is unique. . . (right). The long life of the oak contributes to the impressive amount of species associated with it. It can live for as long as 1000 years . . . The number of old trees in this age class has declined drastically in Sweden and the rest of Europe, something that has affected many species and put them on the red list of threatened species" Living Coastal Woodlands.


Coastal woodland oak, Sweden.
Photo: Jens Johannesson


Drottning Kristinas lind, Groensoeoe, May 2007.
Photo: Karen Wonders


Queen Christina's lime (left) stands in the early 17th century Renaissance style park in a Swedish royal palace built in 1611: Groensoeoe slott. The royal lime tree was planted in 1623 during the visit of of the King's mother and is one of the oldest lime trees to be found in Europe. In 2003 Queen Silvia planted a genetic copy next to it.

One of Sweden's greatest painters is the wildlife artist Bruno Liljefors (1860 - 1939). Liljefors lived during a period when the forests of Sweden were undergoing industrial clearcutting to supply the new global market economy. The vanishing native fauna and flora was disturbing to many of Liljefors' contemporaries such as Augst Strindberg. Liljefors painted the wild habitats of game animals and birds, such as a grouse hen nesting in an old pine tree (below) and reaffirmed the importance of Nordic nature to Swedish national identity.


"Tjaederhoena" (Grouse hen nesting in a pine tree), 1889. Painting by Bruno Liljefors.