7 Nominees for the Best Tree in Literature
Cast your mind back to childhood and choose a favorite.
The trees we meet in books come in all shapes, sizes, and consciousness levels, enabling different sorts of mysteries, enchantments, and adolescent epiphanies. There’s The Giving Tree, brought to us by poet Shel Silverstein, the iconic baobabs in The Little Prince, the Ents from The Lord of the Rings, and Grandmother Willow from Pocahontas. There’s the beloved Magic Treehouse series, the wheel-trees in His Dark Materials, and Winnie the Pooh’s crucial honey tree.
While these trees are all memorable in their own ways, we at Atlas Obscura have our own favorites. Here are our seven candidates for the best trees in literature.
My Side of the Mountain: Sam’s Hemlock Homestead
Chosen by Sarah Laskow
Of all the trees in all the books I read as a kid, the one that captured my heart was the tree that Sam hollowed out as his home in My Side of the Mountain, by Jean Craighead George. In a stand of old trees, this was “the biggest and the oldest and the most kinglike of them all,” a hemlock, rotting away in its heart, inviting Sam to create a place to live and hide in his great escape from the city. How could you not want a tree like this one?
“Inside I felt as cozy as a turtle in its shell,” Sam writes. It was big enough to stand in, so well-hidden that a man could sit beside it all day and never detect it, and stocked full of nuts and other food to feast on. This tree wasn’t doing anything magic or un-tree-like; it was simply standing there, being a perfect tree. “On warm evenings I would lie on my stomach and look out the door, listen to the frogs and nighthawks and hope it would storm so that I could crawl in my tree and be dry,” Sam says.
Other fantasy trees, that talk or walk, that have doors to secret worlds, that are home to elves or fairies, don’t have the same pull they once did. But there’s still part of me that imagines running away to live in this one.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn: The Tree of Heaven
Chosen by Hana Glasser
“Some people called it the Tree of Heaven. No matter where its seed fell, it made a tree which struggled to reach the sky. It grew in boarded-up lots and out of neglected rubbish heaps and it was the only tree that grew out of cement. It grew lushly, but only in the tenement districts.”
It’s been a long time since Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was published in 1943, but the unsurpassed best, most iconic—dare I say American—tree in literature is still stubbornly thriving in the yard of a Williamsburg tenement building.
The so-called Tree of Heaven grows outside the window of Francie Nolan, a second-generation Irish-American girl coming of age in Brooklyn at the turn of the century. Just as Francie and her family struggle against the odds to make a life for themselves, the tree too manages to prosper without water, light, or care. Francie grows from a girl to young woman under the harsh conditions of tenement life, enduring poverty, assault, loneliness, and betrayal. Through it all, she maintains a deep and abiding inner strength. Like Francie, the tree that grows out of the cement in Brooklyn is tough, tenacious, and blossoming against all odds. It’s the kind of tree you root for.
Through the Looking-Glass: The Tumtum Tree
Chosen by David Minkin
I love “Jabberwocky”—a poem from the novel Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There, by Charles Dodgson, a.k.a. Lewis Carroll—and as a kid my mother would recite it to me. My sister and I would mimic the galumphing, similar to how it was portrayed in The Muppet Show (which was no coincidence since we watched a lot of Muppets). To this day, I think it’s probably the only poem I have memorized.
The Tumtum tree shows up just once in the third verse. The tree itself isn’t that special—our hero rests by it while waiting for the Jabberwocky to appear. The Internet tells me the word “tumtum” is just a bit of 19th-century English onomatopoeia, the sound of a stringed instrument strummed monotonously. But tumtum is also apparently a Kadu language spoken in Kurdufan, a former province of central Sudan, and in Judaism, can refer to a person whose sex is unknown.
Despite the Tumtum tree having only a very brief cameo, I’ll never forget it. Because it’s in “Jabberwocky,” it will always be a special tree to me.
Pippi Longstocking: The Lemonade Tree
Chosen by Tao Tao Holmes
“‘I don’t think you have a very nice way with ladies,’ said Pippi. And she lifted him in her strong arms—high in the air—and carried him to a birch tree and hung him over a branch. Then she took the next boy and hung him over another branch.”
I grew up reading a lot of Pippi Longstocking—a children’s series by Swedish author Astrid Lindgren—and for a while, there was perhaps nothing I wanted more in the world than the tree in that supercool nine-year-old girl’s yard. Sure, Pippi (full name: Pippilotta Delicatessa Windowshade Mackrelmint Ephraim’s Daughter Longstocking) had superhuman strength (that she used to hang bullies and rude policemen over branches) and epic ginger braids, but it’s the tree that I most clearly remember: it was the most exciting thing I’d ever encountered, and I wanted one in my backyard, stat.
Not only was this tree perfect for climbing, but it grew the classic Swedish soft drink sockerdricka (lemonade in the English version). The “lemonade tree” was hollow, so Pippi and her buddies would climb inside, and down at the bottom they’d find cool glass bottles of sockerdricka (or lemonade). As a kid, I remember the tree sometimes turning up other random items as well, like candies and cakes, but my imagination and sweet tooth might have gotten the better of me. Back then, for a young sprite like me, the idea of spending a summer day playing in a tree, and the tree then giving me sweet, chilled drinks to quench my thirst, was the definition of heaven. In fact, it might still be.
Guardians of the Galaxy: Groot
Chosen by Eric Grundhauser
Lord of the Rings might have more ents and famous magic trees per capita than any other fictional property, and much deeper roots in my geek heart, but for sheer star power, no tree beats Groot.
A living tree that only says one thing and is best friends with a wise-cracking raccoon, Groot is possibly the most insane character to ever make the leap from the comics page to the silver screen, somehow stealing the show in the Guardians of the Galaxy movie. In his continuing comic book adventures, Groot’s been shown to be a cosmic-level genius and possibly Puerto Rican. Also there was that time he merged with Yggdrasil the World Tree to destroy God Doom’s castle. He’s also one hell of a dancer. Sorry, but your other trees can go I Am Groot themselves.
Harry Potter: The Whomping Willow
Chosen by Lauren Young
“Well, you know the Whomping Willow. It—it doesn’t like being hit.”
In chapter 10 of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Ronald Weasley does a good job at summing up the vicious Whomping Willow. The enchanted thrashing, whipping willow gives Harry, Hermione, and Ron a lot of trouble in the second and third books of J.K. Rowling’s series about the wizard “Boy Who Lived.” Located on the ground of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, students fear wandering nearby the Whomping Willow—its branches swing and bat at anything that moves.
The Whomping Willow is arguably one of the most violent, terrifying trees in fiction: It practically demolishes the Weasley family’s flying Ford Angila, destroys Harry’s beloved Nimbus 2000, and thrashes the trio around as they try to save Ron from being dragged down a hidden passageway under the tree that leads to the Shrieking Shack, in the village Hogsmeade outside of Hogwarts. Fans believe that the Whomping Willow was planted around the year of 1971. Former Professor of the Dark Arts Remus Lupin told a story about how students used to see how close they dared to get to the trunk: “In the end, a boy called Davey Gudgeon nearly lost an eye, and we were forbidden to go near it.”
The Faraway Tree: The Faraway Tree
Chosen by Urvija Banerji
The works of English author Enid Blyton have crept into the collective imaginations of children around the world. As a child I was certainly embedded with a sense of admiration for her ability to create adventures and bring readers into entirely different worlds while still maintaining a sense of jovial familiarity. The Faraway Tree series was one such example that had me entranced; in part because of the wondrous titular tree.
The tree isn’t just huge, it’s magical. Its inhabitants range from the friendly, if a little neurotic Saucepan Man, Moonface, who owns the tree equivalent of a slip ‘n’ slide, Dame Washalot, whose dirty washing water is hazardous, and the forgetful Mr. Watzisname. What’s more, in addition to the colorful characters that populate it, the Faraway Tree has access to an unlimited amount of magical worlds via its highest canopy, which functions as a portal to strange and wonderful lands, like the Land of Cakes and the Land of Wishes. Can the tree in your backyard do that?
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