Welcome to The Treeographer, a collection of the true histories of significant or symbolic trees from around the world. The stories cover a wide variety of topics, including culture, history, science, religion, and more. I hope you’ll join me as I explore the interlacing history of man and tree.
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Sasquatch, Yeti, and the abominable snowman have been the stuff of legends for generations, but Japan’s Juhyo (樹氷) are anything but a myth. Each Winter these “snow monsters” invade the mountainous regions of Northern Japan in force, but what lies beneath their crusty exterior is something much less terrifying: Maries Fir trees (abies maresii).
Every year from January to March these large shapes form high in mountains ranging from Hokkaido to Nagano. But the most famous site for Juhyo watching is Mount Zao in Yamagata prefecture, just a few hours north of Tokyo.
When conditions are just right, an entire mountainside of fir trees transforms into hulking shapes ripped from the pages of a dark fairy tale. Like the snowflakes that stick to their monstrous limbs, no two shapes are alike, prompting visitors to let their imagination run wild.
What was once a humble tree could now be a dinosaur, bear, skeleton, or even the mythical Yeti itself.
A delicate balance under threat
What causes these Japanese snow monsters to form is a unique set of frigid circumstances. Cold Siberian winds sweep down across the region, freezing water droplets onto the branches of the native evergreen conifers. This phenomenon is known as rime ice, and while it is rare it isn’t unique to Japan.
But what really brings the monsters to life is a process much simpler than the designs of Dr. Frankenstein. Since the winds are so strong, the icicles form nearly horizontal, creating silhouettes that are hardly recognizable as trees.
When the winds die down, snow sticks to the frozen surfaces, growing the frozen trees into bulky abstract shapes. As this process repeats throughout the season, the figures grow larger and more grotesque.
While Juhyo have been recorded by scientists dating back more than a century, they require precise conditions to form. Without the perfect combination of naturally-growing fir trees, high altitude, freezing winds, and just the right amount of snow, the monsters stay in hiding.
This delicate balance has been disturbed in recent years by a number of factors, the most obvious of which is climate change. Temperatures throughout Yamagata in Winter have risen by 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) since 1910, narrowing the window when Juhyo are able to form.
The other dangers are perhaps more pressing. Moths have been eating the trees’ needles, and an invasive bark beetle has been killing otherwise healthy trees. Efforts to repopulate the Maries Fir trees have also been hindered by rodents that eat the seeds before they sprout.
Catch them while you can
Although the snow monsters’ days might be numbered, they can still be visited fairly easily. One of the most popular spots is Zao Onsen Ski Resort, which is located right in the heart of Mount Zao.
There, visitors can ski down the slopes alongside the looming beasts, or brave the harsh conditions on foot and hike among them. For the less adventurous, there’s also a cable car with spectacular views from directly above the snow monster rime fields.
The show doesn’t stop at sundown, either. Every night throughout the season, guided tours are led via enormous snowmobiles. The figures are illuminated by its headlights, creating a surreal scene that’s both wonderful and eerie at the same time.
The snow monsters might not be as sprawling and robust as they once were, but they’re still a sight to behold.
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As always, feel free to drop a comment below. It’s always nice to hear from you!
Tree fans rejoice, as voting for the 9th annual European Tree of the Year contest is now open. This year the number of participating countries has increased to 15, with France and the Netherlands joining in on the fun.
Each year on September 11th the world reflects on the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center that forever altered the course of history. The site of the attacks is now home to the 9/11 Memorial Museum, and the 9/11 Survivor tree, despite growing just beneath where the towers fell, stands tall in the Memorial Plaza.
The 9/11 Survivor Tree’s unlikely survival
The 9/11 Survivor tree in November 2001 – photo via Michael Browne
After a month of going through the rubble, rescue workers were surprised and delighted to find a callery pear tree still clinging to life. Amidst the death and destruction, it represented a glimmer of hope. Charred with just one branch still alive, the tree first planted in the 1970s was nearing its end.
It was quickly transferred to Arthur Ross Nursery in the Bronx to recover along with 6 other trees pulled from the rubble. The 6 other trees were planted in several locations in Manhattan, but the tree required much more intensive care to recover.
The 911 Survivor Tree is far from the first memorial tree, even in the United States. Another famous Survivor Tree in Oklahoma was inaugurated in 1996 after the Oklahoma City bombing that killed more than 150 people.
Trees have a much longer history around the world as memorials for lives lost, but much of what we see today can be traced back just a few centuries. That story starts where most stories end – the graveyard.
As cities in Europe grew larger and larger, city planners were forced to move cemeteries into the outskirts of urban areas. Land was much more plentiful there, and they helped manage the danger of disease in high population areas.
However, few residents wanted to visit lines of tombstones so far from home, let alone be buried there and forgotten by their loved ones. Plus, the new cemeteries were not blessed by the Catholic Church.
To combat this, landscaping specialists were brought in to overhaul the image of these new rural cemeteries. Trees and grass were planted to make them more attractive to visitors and remind them of a simpler time as they mourned the deceased.
Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris was the world’s first garden cemetery – photo via Derek Young
The rise of garden cemeteries
The first successful ‘garden cemetery’ was Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. When it was opened in 1804, it offered a radically different experience than the cramped and spooky city cemeteries people were used to.
A war memorial in Abney Park Cemetery – photo via Amedeofelix
After a few years (and some high profile burials), Père Lachaise Cemetery’s green grass and carefully managed trees caught on. It has since been expanded five times, and currently serves as the final resting place for more than 1 million bodies. Countless more cremated remains are housed in the crematorium.
The cemetery remains well-known internationally today due to a few celebrity residents. It contains the tombs of Oscar Wilde, Frederic Chopin, and Jim Morrison among others.
The curious concept of garden cemeteries spread quickly throughout Europe and the United States. Mount Auburn Cemetery near Boston opened in 1831, and later inspired many more in the US and abroad, including London’s Abney Park Cemetery.
Eventually, cities grew to engulf these landscaped areas, and urban dwellers decided they liked the new green spaces but could do without all the dead bodies. This led to an explosion in city parks throughout the Western world in the second half of the 19th century.
Memorial groves around the world
While trees served merely as a backdrop for memorializing the dead in garden cemeteries, later movements imposed a much more direct relationship between trees and the dead.
One such movement was the German Heldenhain, or Heroes’ Grove, originally thought up by landscape architect Willy Lange in 1914. In a heroes’ grove, an oak tree is planted for each fallen soldier. Oak trees were chosen because they are strong and massive but grow slowly, imbuing an everlasting continuity to the memorial.
The Heldenhain or heroes grove in Eberswalde – photo via Sinuhe20
Perhaps the largest instance of individual trees standing in for lost lives is the Forest of the Martyrs near Jerusalem. In it, a tree was planted for each of the 6 million lives lost during the holocaust. In addition to the trees, the Forest of the Martyrs is home to many museums and memorial monuments dedicated to the many groups targeted.
A more recent example is the National Memorial Arboretum in the United Kingdom. Although it doesn’t feature a single tree for each service member lost, it does feature many trees and memorials for military campaigns around the world. Near each memorial, trees from the region they took place have been planted as a tribute to the fallen soldiers, volunteers, and civilians.
The Armed Forces Memorial at the National Memorial Arboretum – photo via NMAguide
Survivor trees as memorials
Like a memorial monument or plaque, memorial trees planted after a tragedy occurs are aimed at future generations. They are a way for those who lived through the event to ensure that it isn’t forgotten, but don’t serve as symbol of what they went through.
Survivor trees, on the other hand, are a powerful symbol for both those who lived through the tragedy and future generations to come. They symbolize not only survival, but also regrowth of a community.
The 9/11 Survivor Tree is without a doubt the most well known survivor tree in the world. Not long after it was planted at the newly created World Trade Center Memorial, its influence began to spread across the nation, and later, the world.
In the years since the September 11th terrorist attacks, a number of other terrorist attacks and natural disasters have occurred all over the world. To spread the strength of New Yorkers following the worst terrorist attack in the history of the United States, each year 9/11 Survivor Tree seedlings are sent to three cities around the world.
The first group of recipients in 2013 included Boston, Massachusetts, which had just suffered a terrible attack at the Boston Marathon. In 2014 a tree was sent to Fort Hood, Texas in honor of the attacks that killed 13 service members and wounded many others.
The first international recipient of a 9/11 Survivor Tree Seedling was Madrid, in memory of the 2004 attacks on commuter trains that killed 193 people. The tree itself was planted at the Spanish embassy in Washington DC.
The first seedling to be planted abroad was given to France in 2016 in memory of the attacks on Paris and Nice. It can be found on the grounds of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Quai d’Orsay.
What was once a humble callery pear tree that thousands of office workers walked past every day without a second glance is now a worldwide symbol of resilience. Each year at the beginning of Summer it comes to life with thousands of white blossoms, reminding all of us that even in the worst of times life will go on.
If you enjoyed this article about the 9/11 Survivor Tree, check out the archive for more tree stories. Also check out the Facebook page, with a few extra tree goodies throughout the week. Subscribe below to receive notifications whenever a new tree story is published.
As always, feel free to drop a comment below. It’s always nice to hear from you
Tucked away just outside of Doñana Natural Park in Huelva, Spain, a small grove of wild olive trees has survived for centuries, even as the landscape around it underwent radical transformation. The Acebuches de El Rocio are a group of 15 ancient wild olive trees located in Plaza Acebuchal in the village of El Rocio. Wild olive trees (acebuches in Spanish) are native to the Iberian Peninsula, and despite their humble reputation, they are much more than just uncultivated olives.
Pinsapos, or Spanish Fir trees, are exceptionally rare. They are found in just a few mountain ranges in Andalusia and Morocco, with one of the largest pinsapo forests located in the volcanic soil of Sierra Bermeja. It was here that the trees were first introduced to the world of science in 1837, and today it remains one of the best places to visit these spectacular trees.
Widely renowned as one of the most beautiful cities in the world, Paris has a lot going for it. A complete redesign of the city in the 19th century gave the ‘city of light’ its trademark wide avenues, with ample urban foliage to shade Parisians and tourists alike. However, the robinia tree of Square René Viviani predates all of this, linking all the way back to the colonial age. Read More
Japanese cherry blossom trees are famous worldwide, and each year around April hundreds of thousands of people flock to the nearest sakura to experience their annual blossoming. They are iconic in their native island of Japan, and the oldest example can be found in Yamanashi prefecture. It’s called Jindai-zakura, or ‘The Cherry Blossom from the Age of the Gods’. Read More
No matter how famous or how ancient, all trees are ultimately owned by someone. It could be a government, a trust, or even just an individual caretaker. However, one white oak tree in Athens, Georgia was reportedly so beloved by its owner that upon his death, he gave the tree ownership of itself in his will. Read More
I’ve been writing my little tree histories here for just over 6 months, and I’m really happy that we’ve grown into such a nice community. I wish that I were able to write more than one story a week (I’m working on that…), but I wanted to provide another way for everyone to get their daily tree fix . Read More