photo by Dirk HR Spennemann
Known as the "walking tree", the Banyan tree can reach 100 feet tall, grow infinitely wide, and is famous for growing over statues and temples across its native habitat across Asia. While the tree typically starts from humble epiphyte beginnings as a seed growing on another tree, these unusually shaped trees become quite large by seemingly walking or growing branches called "aerial props" down to the ground where they take root and extend the girth of the tree. This process also eventually strangles the host tree, leading to its other name the "strangler fig", and can leave a hollow center in the banyan over time perhaps also leading to lore in Bangladesh that the trees are homes to dangerous Jinn spirits. The "Great Banyan" tree of India's Acharya Jagadish Chandra Bose Indian Botanic Garden has become like a one-tree forest over 250 years with thousands of the aerial shoot branches covering more than 4.5 acres, and continues to survive despite losing its main trunk and several shoots to cyclones.
Scientific name: ficus benghalensis
Country: Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka
Native Habitat: Monsoon and rainforests of the subcontinent of India
Parks include: Ranthambore National Park, Acharya Jagadish Chandra Bose Indian Botanic Garden of Howrah, Kolkata, Jagannath Temple of Puri
photo by Terry Sunderland, CIFOR
Sometimes referred to as the "upside down tree" from the effect their relatively short root-like branches have soaring 100 feet above the dry landscape, their strange shape makes them one of the most iconic trees on earth and is crucial to their survival and to those who rely on them. The baobob's strange "blobby" shape allows it to hold up to 32,000 gallons of water in its tall trunk so it can survive long rainless periods and produce nutrient dense fruit in the dry season. Some trees are even thought to live up to 5,000 years—which likely led to the baobab's other name, "the tree of life". Sadly, climate change has created droughts longer than even these great bastions of survival can withstand, which is leading some to become so dehydrated that they collapse under their own great weight without enough water in their trunks.
Scientific Name: Adansonia
Continents: Africa, Oceania
Countries: Southern Africa, Madagascar, Australia
Native Habitat: Dry deciduous forests and "bushlands"
Parks include: "Avenue of Baobabs" between Morondava and Belon’i Tsiribihina in Madagascar, Kirindy Mitea National Park, Kruger National Park, Tsimanampetsotsa Nature Reserve
photo by Helen Graham
You may be familiar with cherry blossom festivals which celebrate the fleeting beauty of the delicate blooms, but the blue jacaranda's long-lasting violet flowers can be enjoyed for months making them a popular tree far outside their native South American habitat. In fact, one of the most stunning horticultural displays in the world takes place in Pretoria South Africa when approximately 70,000 blue jacaranda trees bloom from September to November, and Grafton in New South Wales, Australia has a jacaranda festival from late October to early November. Despite being ornamentally popular everywhere they won't succumb to frost, these striking trees with medicinal properties only grow naturally in the piedmont forests east of the Andes in Bolivia and Argentina where its habitat is considered the most threatened forest ecosystem in the country. Threatened by logging and agricultural pressures, wild blue jacarandas are listed as a globally vulnerable species.
Scientific Name: jacaranda mimosifolia
Continent: South America
Countries: Argentina and Bolivia
Native Habitat: Subtropical and moist tropical forests
Parks include: Amboró National Park in Bolivia, Isiboro Secure Indigenous Territory and National Park in Bolivia, Plaza San Martin in Buenos Aires, Argentina
photo by Jan Smith
At 160 feet tall with trunks up to 6.5 feet in diameter and life spans longer than a millennia, the Brazil nut is one of the largest and longest lived trees in the Amazon rainforest. Its deep roots can reach lots of nutrients to help produce its giant nuts that can weigh up to 6 pounds each—posing a serious threat to people, vehicles, and wildlife when they fall from their great heights. It is said the nuts can reach up to 60 miles per hour making them both lethal and capable of planting themselves. Brazil nuts are the richest known food source of selenium...and radium. Naturally occurring in the earth especially in their Brazilian habitat range, the amount of radium that makes its way into the nuts makes them 1000 times more radioactive than other foods but that's not why you may be missing them in mixed nuts lately as the radium levels are deemed safe when the nutrient juggernaut is consumed within reason (less than 50 nuts a day). Climate change induced rain shortages across their native range yielded far fewer Brazil nuts and newer trees—which don't grow successfully in plantations and need pristine forests—in recent years which has led to a ban on logging the trees in Brazil, Bolivia, and Peru. Light Brazil nut harvesting cooperatives like those of the Indigenous Munduruku and Zoró Peoples may be a viable and sustainable way to both help the economy and the rainforest which has been deforested heavily for mass commercial logging and agriculture.
Scientific Name: bertholletia excelsa
Continent: South America
Countries: Brazil, Venezuela, Guyana, Suriname, French Guiana, eastern Colombia, eastern Peru, and eastern Bolivia
Native Habitat: Pristine rainforests
Parks include: Chapada dos Guimarães National Park in Brazil, Tambopata National Reserve in Peru, Bahuaja Sonene National Park in Peru
photo by photo by Mauro Halpern
Although naturally an understory tree in eucalyptus forests, it's fragrant, golden flowers steal the show when they nearly cover the tree twice a year in late winter and spring, drawing people and pollinators like honeyeaters and thornbills. Their flowers, so scented and sweet they have been used for perfumes and honey, have led the tree to be hailed as the official floral symbol of Australia where their flowering marks the first day of spring known as "Wattle Day" each September 1st. Their fragrant blossoms have also contributed to their spread to many other countries, sometimes to the point of being considered a weed, but wherever these trees grow they help enrich the soil for other plants. Through a symbiotic relationship with rhizobia bacteria on its roots, golden wattles can pull nitrogen from the air and deliver it to the bacteria on its roots, where it acts as fertilizer helping the tree and other plants grow in poor soils.
Scientific name: acacia pycnantha
Native Habitat: Eucalyptus forests from southern New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory, through Victoria and into southeastern South Australia.
Parks include: Greater Bendigo National Park, Warrandyte State Park, and Wattle Park
photo by Alex Proimos
Growing over 200 feet the kapok towers over the rainforest canopy where it flaunts its large seed pods—filled with silky threads used to disperse its seeds and for insulation, stuffing, and Indigenous dart blowguns—defended by thorns along its trunk and larger branches. Its trunk also hosts birds, frogs, and bromeliads in nooks and crevices leading up to its canopy where night-blooming pink and white flowers emit a fragrance only a bat could love so their fur can carry pollen to other trees. Local lore also includes different versions of evil, like the devil or the demon of death, being imprisoned in the tree with thorny reminders to stay away.
Scientific Name: ceiba pentandra
Continent: North America, South America, Africa Countries: Caribbean, Guatemala, Mexico, northern South America, Puerto Rico, West Africa
Native Habitat: Rainforests and tropical forests
Parks include: Yasuni National Park in Ecuador, Tikal National Park in Guatemala, The Vieques Ceiba Tree Park in Puerto Rico
photo by James Gaither
Pronounced "ko-ree" in Māori these ancient trees have existed for at least 20 million years across the forests of the upper North Island of New Zealand. They can live for more than 2,000 years supporting wildlife, epiphytic plants, and Indigenous Peoples who used the wood for boats and houses, and the gum to start fires. European settlers logged many of the trees, which can grow over 160 feet tall and 50 feet wide, but "Tane Mahuta"—New Zealand's largest remaining kauri—and its surrounding forest, which support the North Island brown kiwi and the carnivorous kauri snail have been protected for all in the Waipoua Kauri Forest.
Scientific Name: agathis australis
Country: New Zealand
Native Habitat: "Natural bush" throughout the upper North Island, in the Northland, Auckland and Waikato regions, and in parts of the Bay of Plenty.
Parks include: Waipoua Forest, AH Reed Kauri Park, Kaimai Mamaku Forest Park
photo by Michael Yuen
Nature often paints in sunrises, sunsets, wildflowers, and fall leaves but the colorful strokes revealed on the trunk of a rainbow eucalyptus can be a surprising—and even "psychedelic"—sight to behold. Like other eucalyptus trees, their paper-like bark naturally peels in strips, however, beneath the rainbow eucalyptus' orange tinted bark, shocks of bright "highlighter" shades of red, orange, yellow, green, gray, and purple are revealed. The rainbow effect is thought to be created by the inner green bark's chlorophyll being exposed to the air which fills with the tree's natural tannins—like those that help to protect the coast redwood from rot, bugs, and fire—over time, changing the inner bark's colors as it ages making these fast growing trees into "living works of art" up to 250 feet tall.
Scientific Name: eucalyptus deglupta
Countries: Philippines, Papua New Guinea, Indonesia
Native Habitat: Lower rainforests
Parks include: Palikir, State of Pohnpei, Federated States of Micronesia
photo by Dirk HR Spennemann
The silver birch is iconic across its native boreal and temperate forests of Europe and Asia, for its impossibly bright bark and its role in creating fairy-tale-worthy forest scenes. In the winter, its peeling paper-like bark–which contains triterpenes with medicinal properties that may fight cancer–with branches that have been used in Finnish sauna traditions, matches the snow in both color and shine as it reflects the excessive light from the snow that would damage the tree. Following winter it's one of the first trees to bloom and in Ukraine the words for March, berezen’, and birch, bereza, are nearly synonymous because that is when silver birch starts to produce sap. In the warmer months, the pioneer species—often the first to grow in burned landscapes—let's light through its canopy so mosses, grasses, and flowering plants can grow on the forest floor next to the quintessential amanita mushrooms of it symbiotic mycorrhizal relationship, attracting insects and birds. In Germany alone, nearly 500 species of insects including important pollinators like butterflies, moths, and beetles were found to rely on the silver birch.
Scientific Name: betula pendula
Continent: Europe, Asia
Countries: Europe and parts of Asia including Siberia, China, the mountains of northern Turkey, the Caucasus, and northern Iran
Native Habitat: Dry, sandy soils from western Europe to Xinjiang province in China, and southwards to the mountains of the Caucasus and northern Iran, Iraq, and Turkey, and northern Morocco.
Parks include: National Park of Białowieża in Poland, Nuuksio National Park in Finland, Ånderdalen National Park in Norway
photo by Azuki25
Like a giant peacock feather, the traveler's tree rises from the ground on a narrow stalk and fans out its leaves like plumage which can hold rainwater in their natural vial shape and provide a drink to needy travelers (purification recommended!). Related to the bird of paradise flower, the giant fans, which orient themselves so reliably on the east-west line they are said to work as a compass, also feature a white version of the characteristic bird bill-shaped flower seen on its floral cousin, and large turquoise seeds which are unique to this tree. Isolated on the island of Madagascar where five new species of the tree were described by science in 2021, the tree co-evolved with the ruffed lemur which it attracted to disperse its seeds by growing them in one of only two colors the lemur can see—blue and green.
Scientific Name: ravenala madagascariensis
Native Habitat: Lower rainforests, grasslands, and rocky areas
Parks Include: Andohahela National Park, Masoala and Nosy Mangabe National Park, Ranomafana National Park, Zahamena National Park
photo by Michel Viard