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A tree is a perennial woody plant. It is most often defined as a woody plant that has many secondary branches supported clear of the ground on a single main stem or trunk with clear apical dominance. A minimum height specification at maturity is cited by some authors, varying from 3 m to 6 m; some authors set a minimum of 10 cm trunk diameter (30 cm girth). Woody plants that do not meet these definitions by having multiple stems and/or small size, are called shrubs. Compared with most other plants, trees are long-lived, some reaching several thousand years old and growing to up to 115 m (379 ft) high.

Trees are an important component of the natural landscape because of their prevention of erosion and the provision of a weather-sheltered ecosystem in and under their foliage. They also play an important role in producing oxygen and reducing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, as well as moderating ground temperatures. They are also elements in landscaping and agriculture, both for their aesthetic appeal and their orchard crops (such as apples). Wood from trees is a building material, as well as a primary energy source in many developing countries. Trees also play a role in many of the world's mythologies (see trees in mythology).


A tree is a plant form that occurs in many different orders and families of plants. Trees show a variety of growth forms, leaf type and shape, bark characteristics, and reproductive organs.

The tree form has evolved separately in unrelated classes of plants, in response to similar environmental challenges, making it a classic example of parallel evolution. With an estimate of 100,000 tree species, the number of tree species worldwide might total 25 percent of all living plant species. The majority of tree species grow in tropical regions of the world and many of these areas have not been surveyed yet by botanists, making species diversity and ranges poorly understood.

The earliest trees were tree ferns, horsetails and lycophytes, which grew in forests in the Carboniferous Period; tree ferns still survive, but the only surviving horsetails and lycophytes are not of tree form. Later, in the Triassic Period, conifers, ginkgos, cycads and other gymnosperms appeared, and subsequently flowering plants in the Cretaceous Period. Most species of trees today are flowering plants (Angiosperms) and conifers. For the listing of examples of well-known trees and how they are classified, see List of tree genera.

A small group of trees growing together is called a grove or copse, and a landscape covered by a dense growth of trees is called a forest. Several biotopes are defined largely by the trees that inhabit them; examples are rainforest and taiga (see ecozones). A landscape of trees scattered or spaced across grassland (usually grazed or burned over periodically) is called a savanna. A forest of great age is called old growth forest or ancient woodland (in the UK). A young tree is called a sapling.


The parts of a tree are the roots, trunk(s), branches, twigs and leaves. Tree stems consist mainly of support and transport tissues (xylem and phloem). Wood consists of xylem cells, and bark is made of phloem and other tissues external to the vascular cambium. Trees may be grouped into exogenous and endogenous trees according to the way in which their stem diameter increases. Exogenous trees, which comprise the great majority of trees (all conifer, and almost all broadleaf trees), grow by the addition of new wood outwards, immediately under the bark. Endogenous trees, mainly in the monocotyledons (e.g., palms and dragon trees), but also cacti, grow by addition of new material inwards.

As an exogenous tree grows, it creates growth rings as new wood is laid down concentrically over the old wood. In species growing in areas with seasonal climate changes, wood growth produced at different times of the year may be visible as alternating light and dark, or soft and hard, rings of wood. In temperate climates, and tropical climates with a single wet-dry season alternation, the growth rings are annual, each pair of light and dark rings being one year of growth; these are known as annual rings. In areas with two wet and dry seasons each year, there may be two pairs of light and dark rings each year; and in some (mainly semi-desert regions with irregular rainfall), there may be a new growth ring with each rainfall. In tropical rainforest regions, with constant year-round climate, growth is continuous and the growth rings are not visible nor is there a change in the wood texture. In species with annual rings, these rings can be counted to determine the age of the tree, and used to date cores or even wood taken from trees in the past, a practice is known as the science of dendrochronology. Very few tropical trees can be accurately aged in this manner. Age determination is also impossible in endogenous trees.

The roots of a tree are generally embedded in earth, providing anchorage for the above-ground biomass and absorbing water and nutrients from the soil. It should be noted, however, that while ground nutrients are essential to a tree's growth the majority of its biomass comes from carbon dioxide absorbed from the atmosphere (see photosynthesis). Above ground, the trunk gives height to the leaf-bearing branches, aiding in competition with other plant species for sunlight. In many trees, the arrangement of the branches optimizes exposure of the leaves to sunlight.

Not all trees have all the plant organs or parts mentioned above. For example, most palm trees are not branched, the saguaro cactus of North America has no functional leaves, tree ferns do not produce bark, etc. Based on their general shape and size, all of these are nonetheless generally regarded as trees. A plant form that is similar to a tree, but generally having smaller, multiple trunks and/or branches that arise near the ground, is called a shrub. However, no precise differentiation between shrubs and trees is possible. Given their small size, bonsai plants would not technically be 'trees', but one should not confuse reference to the form of a species with the size or shape of individual specimens. A spruce seedling does not fit the definition of a tree, but all spruces are trees.

Record breaking trees

The world's champion trees can be rated on height, trunk diameter or girth, total size, and age.

Tallest trees

The heights of the tallest trees in the world have been the subject of considerable dispute and much exaggeration. Modern verified measurement with laser rangefinders combined with tape drop measurements made by tree climbers, carried out by the U.S. Eastern Native Tree Society has shown that some older measuring methods and measurements are often unreliable, sometimes producing exaggerations of 5% to 15% above the real height. Historical claims of trees of , and even , are now largely disregarded as unreliable, and attributed to human error. Historical records of fallen trees measured prostrate on the ground are considered to be far more reliable. The following are now accepted as the top five tallest reliably measured species:
  1. Coast Redwood (Sequoia sempervirens): 115.56 m (379.1 ft), Redwood National Parkmarker, Californiamarker, United Statesmarker
  2. Australian Mountain-ash (Eucalyptus regnans): , south of Hobartmarker, Tasmaniamarker, Australia
  3. Coast Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii): , Brummit Creek, Coos Countymarker, Oregonmarker, United States
  4. Sitka Spruce (Picea sitchensis): , Prairie Creek Redwoods State Parkmarker, California, United States
  5. Giant Sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum): , Redwood Mountain Grove, Kings Canyon National Parkmarker, California, United States
A view of a tree from below; this may exaggerate apparent height

Stoutest trees

The girth of a tree is much easier to measure than the height, as it is a simple matter of stretching a tape round the trunk, and pulling it taut to find the circumference. Despite this, UK tree author Alan Mitchell made the following comment about measurements of yew trees:

As a general standard, tree girth is taken at 'breast height'; this is defined differently in different situations, with most forestry measurements taking girth at 1.3 m above ground, while those who measure ornamental trees usually measure at 1.5 m above ground; in most cases this makes little difference to the measured girth. On sloping ground, the "above ground" reference point is usually taken as the highest point on the ground touching the trunk, but some use the average between the highest and lowest points of ground . Some of the inflated old measurements may have been taken at ground level. Some past exaggerated measurements also result from measuring the complete next-to-bark measurement, pushing the tape in and out over every crevice and buttress.

Modern trends are to cite the tree's diameter rather than the circumference; this is obtained by dividing the measured circumference by π; it assumes the trunk is circular in cross-section (an oval or irregular cross-section would result in a mean diameter slightly greater than the assumed circle). This is cited as dbh (diameter at breast height) in tree and forestry literature.

One further problem with measuring baobabs Adansonia is that these trees store large amounts of water in the very soft wood in their trunks. This leads to marked variation in their girth over the year (though not more than about 2.5%), swelling to a maximum at the end of the rainy season, minimum at the end of the dry season.

The stoutest living single-trunk species in diameter are:
  1. African Baobab Adansonia digitata: , Big Baobab, Limpopo Provincemarker, South Africa.
  2. Montezuma Cypress Taxodium mucronatum: , Árbol del Tulemarker, Santa Maria del Tule, Oaxaca, Mexico. Note though that this diameter includes buttressing; the actual idealised diameter of the area of its wood is .
  3. Giant Sequoia Sequoiadendron giganteum: , General Grant treemarker, Grant Grovemarker, California, United States
  4. Coast Redwood Sequoia sempervirens: , Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, California, United States.

Charles Darwin reported finding Fitzroya cupressoides with trunk circumferences of up to 40 m (130 ft) implying a diameter of about 12 m (40 ft), but this may be an anomaly as the largest known measurements are about 5 m.

An addition problem lies in cases where multiple trunks (whether from an individual tree or multiple trees) grow together. The Sacred Fig is a notable example of this, forming additional 'trunks' by growing adventitious roots down from the branches, which then thicken up when the root reaches the ground to form new trunks; a single Sacred Fig tree can have hundreds of such trunks.

Occasionally, errors may occur due to confusion between girth (circumference) and diameter.

Largest trees

The largest trees in total volume are those which are both tall and of large diameter, and in particular, which hold a large diameter high up the trunk. Measurement is very complex, particularly if branch volume is to be included as well as the trunk volume, so measurements have only been made for a small number of trees, and generally only for the trunk. No attempt has ever been made to include root volume. Measuring standards vary.

The top five species measured so far are:
  1. Giant Sequoia Sequoiadendron giganteum: 1,487 m³ (52,508 cu ft), General Shermanmarker
  2. Coast Redwood Sequoia sempervirens: 1,203 m³ (42,500 cu ft), Lost Monarch
  3. Montezuma Cypress Taxodium mucronatum: 750 m³ (25,000 cu ft), Árbol del Tulemarker
  4. Western Redcedar Thuja plicata: 500 m³ (17,650 cu ft ), Quinault Lake Redcedar
  5. Kauri Agathis australis: circa 400 m³ (15,000 cu ft), Tane Mahutamarker tree (total volume, including branches, 516.7 m³/18,247 cu ft)
However, the Alerce Fitzroya cupressoides, as yet un-measured, may well slot in at fourth or fifth place. The largest angiosperm tree is currently a Tasmanian Blue Gum (Eucalyptus globulus) in Tasmaniamarker, with a volume of 368 m³.

Oldest trees

The oldest trees are determined by growth rings, which can be seen if the tree is cut down or in cores taken from the edge to the center of the tree. Accurate determination is only possible for trees which produce growth rings, generally those which occur in seasonal climates; trees in uniform non-seasonal tropical climates grow continuously and do not have distinct growth rings. It is also only possible for trees which are solid to the center of the tree; many very old trees become hollow as the dead heartwood decays away. For some of these species, age estimates have been made on the basis of extrapolating current growth rates, but the results are usually little better than guesswork or wild speculation. White (1998) proposes a method of estimating the age of large and veteran trees in the United Kingdommarker through the correlation between a tree's stem diameter, growth character and age.

The verified oldest measured ages are:
  1. Great Basin Bristlecone Pine (Methuselah) Pinus longaeva: 4,844 years
  2. Alerce Fitzroya cupressoides: 3,622 years
  3. Giant Sequoia Sequoiadendron giganteum: 3,266 years
  4. Sugi Cryptomeria japonica: 3,000 years
  5. Huon-pine Lagarostrobos franklinii: 2,500 years

Other species suspected of reaching exceptional age include Ginkgo Ginkgo biloba (over 3,500 years The Ginkgo Pages. Retrieved on 2009-01-11.), European Yew Taxus baccata (probably over 2,000 years) and Western Redcedar Thuja plicata.

The oldest reported age for an angiosperm tree is 2293 years for the Sri Maha Bodhi Sacred Fig (Ficus religiosa) planted in 288 BC at Anuradhapuramarker, Sri Lankamarker; this is also the oldest human-planted tree with a known planting date.


The two major sources of tree damage are biotic (from living sources) and abiotic (from non-living sources). Biotic sources would include insects which might bore into the tree, deer which might rub bark off the trunk, or fungi, which might attach themselves to the tree..

Abiotic sources include lightning, vehicles impacts, and construction activities. Construction activities can involve a number of damage sources, including grade changes that prevent aeration to roots, spills involving toxic chemicals such as cement or petroleum products, or severing of branches or roots.

Both damage sources can result in trees becoming dangerous, and the term "hazard trees" is commonly used by arborists, and industry groups such as power line operators. Hazard trees are trees which due to disease or other factors are more susceptible to falling during windstorms, or having parts of the tree fall.

The process of evaluating the danger a tree presents is based on a process called the Quantified Tree Risk Assessment.

Assessment as to labeling a tree a hazard tree can be based on a field examination. Assessment as a result of construction activities that will damage a tree is based on three factors; severity, extent and duration. Severity relates usually to the degree of intrusion into the TPZ and resultant root loss. Extent is frequently a percentage of a factor such as canopy, roots or bark, and duration is normally based on time. Root severing is considered permanent in time.

Trees are similar to people. Both can withstand massive amounts of some types of damage and survive, but even small amounts of certain types of trauma can result in death. Arborists are very aware that established trees will not tolerate any appreciable disturbance of the root system. However, lay people and construction professionals are seldom cognizant of how easily a tree can be killed.

One reason for confusion about tree damage from construction involves the dormancy of trees during winter. Another factor is that trees may not show symptoms of damage until 24-months or longer after damage has occurred. For that reason, persons uneducated in arboriculture science may not correlate the actual cause and resultant effect.

Various organizations, such as the International Society of Arboriculture, the British Standards Institute and the National Arborist Association (about 2007 renamed the Tree Industry Association), have long recognized the importance of construction activities that impact tree health. The impacts are important because they can result in monetary losses due to tree damage and resultant remediation or replacement costs, as well as violation of government ordinances or community or subdivision restrictions.

As a result, protocols for tree management prior to, during and after construction activities are well established, tested and refined. These basic steps are involved:
  • Review of the construction plans
  • Development of the related tree inventory
  • Application of standard construction tree management protocols
  • Assessment of potential for expected tree damages
  • Development of a tree protection plan (providing for pre-, concurrent, and post construction damage prevention and remediation steps)
  • Development of a tree protection plan
  • Development of a remediation plan
  • Implementation of tree protection zones (TPZ)
  • Assessment of construction tree damage, post-construction
  • Implementation of the remediation plan

International standards are uniform in analyzing damage potential and sizing TPZs (tree protection zones) to minimize damage. For mature to fully mature trees, the accepted TPZ comprises a 1.5-foot set-off for every 1-inch diameter of trunk. That means for a 10-inch tree, the TPZ would extend 15-feet in all directions from the base of the trunk at ground level.

For young/small trees with minimal crowns (and trunks less than 4-inches in diameter) a TPZ equal to 1-foot for every inch of trunk diameter may suffice. That means for a 3-inch tree, the TPZ would extend 3-feet in all directions from the base of the trunk at ground level. Detailed information on TPZs and related topics is available at minimal cost from organizations like the International Society for Arboriculture.

Trees in culture

The tree has always been a cultural symbol. Common icons are the World tree, for instance Yggdrasil, and the tree of life. The tree is often used to represent nature or the environment itself. A common misconception is that trees get most of their mass from the ground. In fact, 99% of a tree's mass comes from the air.

Tree value estimation

Studies have shown that trees contribute as much as 27% of the appraised land value in certain markets.
Basic tree values (varies by region)


(1985 US$)
10 $1,729
14 $3,388
18 $5,588
26 $11,682
30 $15,554

These most likely use diameter measured at breast height, above ground—not the larger base diameter. A general model for any year and diameter is Value = 17.27939*( diameter ^2)*1.022^( year -1985) assuming 2.2% inflation per year. (Note, the right side of this equation is written to paste into Excel or Google to perform the calculation.) Extrapolations from any model can cause problems, so tree value estimates for diameters larger than 30 inches might have to be capped so trees do not not exceed 27% of the total appraised property value.

See also




  • Pakenham, T. (2002). Remarkable Trees of the World. ISBN 0-297-84300-1
  • Pakenham, T. (1996). Meetings with Remarkable Trees. ISBN 0-297-83255-7
  • Tudge, C. (2005). The Secret Life of Trees. How They Live and Why They Matter. Allen Lane. London. ISBN 0-713-99698-6

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