Trees are wonderfully adaptable plants and can live for thousands of years if left unmolested. Unfortunately, they are also essentially defenseless against people. Thus, many famous trees have met their untimely ends at the hands of malicious vandals, well-intentioned grad students and drug-addled vagrants.
This one really hurts. Prometheus was a bristlecone pine, peacefully entering its fifth millennium near a trail in the White Mountains of California. It was the oldest living organism on the planet. A grad student was tasked with counting its rings to determine its exact age, something normally done with a core sample. Stunningly, the student declared he needed to cut the tree down to count the rings. Equally stunningly, the Park Service gave him permission! Though it happened in 1964, we still mourn.
A famous cypress tree in Florida, The Senator was estimated to be more than 3,500 years old. At 118 feet, it could be seen for miles and was a local landmark. We don’t know how or why a meth addict decided to crawl into its hollow trunk or why she decided to start a little campfire that quickly got out of control. The tree burned from the inside out and the woman was arrested. Note to future arsonists: If you’re committing a crime against nature, don’t take pictures of it on your cellphone.
Arbre du Tenere
The only tree for 250 miles of Saharan desert wasteland, this lonely little acacia was a landmark for caravans of nomads on camels. It was one of only two trees actually charted on maps of the area as a point of orientation for travelers. A drunk truck driver ran it over in 1973. The dead tree was placed in a museum, and a small metal sculpture now stands on the site, presumably awaiting the next drunk.
Auburn University Live Oaks
These famous live oaks at Toomer’s Corners in Auburn University were a popular landmark and rallying spot for the college’s football fans. A disgruntled fan of a rival team poisoned the trees with a widely used herbicide. Worse yet, he called a local radio station and claimed responsibility. Even though the university quickly applied activated charcoal to block the herbicide’s effects, it’s unlikely the trees will survive.
When Greece’s economy cratered recently, citizens foraged for firewood wherever they could find it. Unfortunately, one guy went looking at the ancient site of Plato’s Academy, and cut down a landmark olive tree where the great philosopher once sat with his students. Later, the Directorate of Antiquities declared that the cut tree was not the original famous tree, but a replacement. The original tree was removed for safekeeping after being hit by a bus.
These losses of historic trees are tragic, but they are also emblematic of the wider problem of deforestation. According to the World Resources Institue, over 80% of Earth’s forest cover has already been cut down, and that is having drastic repercussions on our climate. If you’re interested in learning about plant and tree health, you can find educational resources here.