Dwarf beech trees are not ordinary trees. Found in a forest near Reims, France, in the summer they look like green igloos, or large turtles, or something out of The Little Prince. But instead of hiding elephants, these green, leafy mounds, ranging from 3 feet to 15 feet high, cover deformed trunks and gnarly branches that squirm and twist and zigzag like contortionists in repose. In winter, they look like the skeletal remains of mutant serpents that reach defiantly toward the sky as if to say, “You want a piece of me?”
Verzy, a small village 15 miles south of Reims, is home to the largest stand of Faux—an Old French word that means beech trees. But there are similar trees found elsewhere in France, as well as in Sweden, Denmark, and Germany. Les Faux de Verzy has about 800 of the trees, some believed to be over 300 years old.
No one’s exactly sure how or why they grow the way they do. Scientists guess the mushroom-shaped specimens are a result of a genetic mutation, but the trees’ offspring are just as likely to be normal and straight as they are to be crooked. Other possible explanations for their odd traits include climate, chemicals, air currents, soil composition, telluric radiation, underground cavities, radioactive meteors, a virus—or perhaps a curse?
Perhaps not surprisingly, an intriguing web of legends and half-truths about these trees has developed over the centuries. They involve a cast of unlikely characters: a pious saint, Joan of Arc, monks, scientists, plus a few witches, trolls, townsfolk, and maybe even evil fairies.
In the case of Les Faux de Verzy in particular, some legends say that in olden times, the trees sheltered pagan deities, worshipped by the local townspeople. Saint Basel, a devout monk who lived in a monastery nearby, is said to have cursed the trees, causing them to twist like pretzels instead of soaring up toward heaven. Others say monks in the monastery became fond of Les Faux and cultivated them, using techniques such as layering—burying part of a low branch to start a new tree—to increase the number. Perhaps the monks gave the trees away to travelers, which would explain how they ended up growing elsewhere.
In the 1930s and ‘40s, people from Verzy and surrounding villages danced in the shadows of Les Faux at bacchanalian festivals, complete with orchestras and cases of champagne from nearby cellars. Michele Renoir, a local resident, recalls the trees provided natural hiding places, perfect for romantic dalliances, where couples would swoon under the enchanting spell of the branches—or maybe it was the champagne.
Others still whisper about witches and trolls who, in a frenzy late at night, might have twirled these trees into corkscrew shapes, just for the fun of it. One legend claims that Joan of Arc came to Les Faux de Verzy and climbed into a tree, letting its twisted branches embrace her young body.
Anatole France, author of The Life of Joan of Arc, tells the tale of how a similar tree figured in young Joan’s life. Her village of Domremy-la-Purcelle in Lorraine—where dwarf beech trees are also found today—was home to a “Fairy Tree,” whose low branches swept the ground. As a girl, Joan danced around the tree in springtime celebrations. Along with other young maidens, she hung the tree with garlands and wreaths, which would mysteriously disappear at night.
The townspeople of Joan’s era truly believed fairies lived in the tree. Once powerful, the fairies “had fallen long since from their powerful and high estate,” France writes, and were “as simple as the people among whom they lived.” Locals invited the fairies to baptisms and set a place for them at the dinner table. “Some were very kind,” writes France, but others cast evil spells. Given her famous demise at age 19, perhaps in her youth, poor Joan of Arc displeased a fairy.
Les Faux de Verzy are found in a remote area of Parc Naturel Régional de la Montagne de Reims and attract some 300,000 visitors per year. Lately, forest rangers are concerned about damage to the trees and have erected fences around many of them so tourists don’t trample on their fragile root system. In 2016, the park received the coveted designation of “Exceptional Forest” by the National Forests Office.
Nearby resident Nicole Quevy-Lefevre is a huge fan of Les Faux de Verzy and says the grove is a “garden of relaxation.” She and her husband, Paul, visit the trees several times a week, weather permitting. They have names for their favorites and mourn when one of the trees is damaged in a storm. But the trees are resilient, she says, and live for centuries. They are like “little crazy men,” as she puts it.
Quevy-Lefevre says her favorite season for enjoying the trees is in winter, when the snow provides stark contrast to gnarly dark branches. But no matter the time of year, a magical experience awaits at Les Faux de Verzy.