As the United States celebrates Arbor Day, learn about 10 trees—both living and dead—that not only witnessed history, but also played a role in shaping world events.
1. Anne Frank’s Chestnut Tree (Amsterdam, Netherlands)
For the two years that Anne Frank remained hidden in the “secret annex” of her father’s workplace, a lone attic window offered her only glimpse of the outside world. The teenager often gazed out and took comfort in the beauty of the white horse chestnut tree in the courtyard and longed for the freedom of the birds perched on its branches. “The two of us [Peter van Pels and Frank] looked out at the blue sky, the bare chestnut tree glistening with dew, the seagulls and other birds glinting with silver as they swooped through the air, and we were so moved and entranced that we couldn’t speak,” Frank wrote in her diary on February 23, 1944. In August 2010, the diseased tree blew down in a storm. Its legacy lives on, however, as saplings germinated from the tree’s chestnuts have been planted around the world.
2. Liberty Tree (Boston, Massachusetts)
On August 14, 1765, a defiant group of American colonists that proclaimed itself the Sons of Liberty rallied beneath the mighty boughs of a century-old elm tree to protest the enactment of the highly unpopular Stamp Act. The young rebels decorated the tree with banners, lanterns and effigies of the British stamp master and prime minister. Over the next decade, patriots regularly gathered around the tree for meetings, speeches and celebrations until British soldiers and Loyalists under siege in Boston chopped it into firewood during the summer of 1775. The Liberty Tree became such a powerful patriotic symbol that towns throughout the colonies followed Boston’s lead in designating their own versions.
3. Isaac Newton’s Apple Tree (Woolsthorpe, England)
According to the story Isaac Newton told his friends and biographers, the physicist and mathematician was sitting in the garden of his birthplace, Woolsthorpe Manor, on a late summer day in 1666 when he saw an apple fall from one of his trees. The plunging fruit led him to muse about the forces at work and led to his discovery of the law of universal gravitation. When the “gravity tree” blew down in a storm in 1820, trinkets were made from its wood. The tree, however, remained rooted and regrew from the base, and it continues to blossom and produce fruit today.
4. Charter Oak (Hartford, Connecticut)
After England’s King James II assumed the throne, he sought to revoke the royal charter issued to Connecticut in 1662 by his predecessor and late brother, King Charles II. The colonists of Connecticut, however, had no desire to turn over the document and relinquish the limited autonomy that it granted. According to legend, the king’s royal governor, Sir Edmund Andros, met with colonial leaders in a Hartford meeting house soon after his arrival in 1687. After the governor demanded the charter, the candles in the room suddenly blew out. When light was restored, the parchment had vanished. Captain Joseph Wadsworth supposedly squirreled the document away in the trunk of a nearby white oak tree. The charter remained in colonial custody and was used to govern Connecticut until 1818. The centuries-old “Charter Oak,” which blew down in a storm in 1856, remains a treasured state symbol.
5. September 11 Survivor Tree (New York City, New York)
Weeks after the attacks of September 11, 2001, recovery workers at Ground Zero discovered a lone sign of life amid the rubble of the World Trade Center—a callery pear tree, crushed and scorched, yet somehow still alive. The New York City Parks Department transplanted an eight-foot stump of the severely damaged tree to a Bronx nursery and slowly nursed it back to health. The “Survivor Tree” was replanted at the site in 2010 and is now part of the National September 11 Memorial & Museum as a symbol of survival and resilience.
6. Major Oak (Edwinstowe, England)
Legend has it that the hollow trunk of this massive oak tree in the heart of Nottinghamshire’s Sherwood Forest served as the hideout for Robin Hood and his band of merry men. The sprawling limbs of the oak, estimated at upwards of 1,000 years old, are now supported by steel poles. In 2014, the Major Oak was voted England’s first-ever “Tree of the Year” in a competition sponsored by the Woodland Trust. The tree is named for Major Hayman Rooke, who wrote about it in his popular 1790 book about Sherwood Forest’s oaks.
7. Japanese Cherry Trees (Washington, D.C.)
The flowering of the cherry trees, living symbols of peace between the United States and Japan, lining the Tidal Basin is an annual rite of spring in Washington, D.C. The first shipment of Japanese cherry trees that arrived in 1910 was infected with insects and parasitic worms and ordered destroyed by President William Taft. The second shipment of more than 3,000 cherry trees, composed of a dozen varieties gifted by Tokyo, arrived in March 1912 in perfect condition and were planted on the parkland reclaimed from the Potomac River’s mud flats.
8. Emancipation Oak (Hampton, Virginia)
In the fall of 1861, the children of former slaves who had escaped to the refuge of Union-held Fort Monroe gathered underneath the sprawling canopy of a southern live oak to listen to free African-American Mary Smith Peake as she began to teach them how to read and write. Previously, slaves had been forbidden an education under Virginia law. Underneath the same oak tree, now on the grounds of Hampton University, African-Americans congregated in 1863 to listen to the first reading in the South of the Emancipation Proclamation issued by President Abraham Lincoln.
9. General Sherman Tree (Sequoia National Park, California)
Believed to be between 2,300 and 2,700 years old, the giant sequoia named for Civil War General William Tecumseh Sherman is the world’s largest tree by volume. According to the National Park Service, the tree is 274.9 feet tall with a 102.6-foot circumference at its base—big enough to supply wood to build 120 average-sized houses. Up until 1931, a tree named for General Ulysses S. Grant in nearby Kings Canyon National Park was believed to have been the largest in the world, but a more accurate measurement gave the bragging rights to the conifer named for the man who was once Grant’s deputy.
10. Bodhi Tree (Bodh Gaya, India)
According to sacred texts, the founder of Buddhism, Siddhartha Gautama, attained enlightenment (“bodhi”) after sitting and meditating for seven days under a fig tree in an Indian village. The sacred Bodhi Tree at the Mahabodhi Temple is touted as a descendant of the original specimen under which the Buddha sat. Offshoots across the world are said to have been propagated from the original, such as the Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi in Sri Lanka, which was planted in the 3rd century B.C.