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The Tuesday tree: the living dead

March 29, 2011

What is this wreck of a tree, gnarled and skeletal, white as old bones?

When I stumbled upon it yesterday, I felt as if I had met a ghost.

Its trunk is split so deeply down the middle that from some angles you can see daylight on the other side.

It has grown scrabbly nests of twigs on itself, like a spider on caffeine.

It is consumed by woodworm and livid with moss.

But it’s alive.


This creature is a hornbeam, a fairly uncommon tree in Scotland. The natural range of the hornbeam in the British Isles is southern and eastern England. In fact, I am told that this particular specimen is a champion hornbeam, being the tallest broadest ever recorded so far north (erm, but I don’t know its measurements off the top of my head, so please don’t ask…). Representatives from The Woodland Trust saw it a few years ago and had to go away to revise their ideas about hornbeams in Scotland! Despite its dreadful wound and deathly appearance, it seems to be perfectly healthy, and has been coming into leaf every spring for years.


For another living ruin of a tree, see A scion of the World Tree

24 Comments leave one →
  1. March 29, 2011 2:33 pm

    What a fabulous, striking tree. What a champion indeed, to be alive with such wounds!

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      March 29, 2011 6:35 pm

      Hello, nice to hear from you! Yes, it’s a pretty good one, this.

  2. March 29, 2011 3:00 pm

    “…like a spider on caffeine” I’d like to say I like your metaphor, but it just sends shudders down my spine.

    As does your dry rot.

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      March 29, 2011 6:36 pm

      Dancing Beastie: the Stuff of Nightmares. Bwah-hah-hah-hah-haaaah….

  3. March 29, 2011 3:07 pm

    What a marvellous gnarled shape and how encouraging that despite its appearance it will soon put forth new leaves. I think it givs hope to oldies like me 🙂

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      March 29, 2011 6:38 pm

      Yes, I was thinking that it’s rather encouraging in that respect too. I’m glad to say that we are all a very long way from being the living dead, though! 😀

  4. Deb permalink
    March 29, 2011 8:38 pm

    I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a hornbeam. We have them here in the eastern U.S., but it’s not a common tree in this area (Massachusetts). Also, apparently ours are smaller. Now I have a quest for my summer walks – find a Hornbeam!

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      March 29, 2011 11:14 pm

      There are several varieties, I think. It’s a species which I didn’t know either, until we moved here. Now every time I see a tree I can’t identify, I wonder if it might be a hornbeam! Happy hunting.

  5. March 29, 2011 10:30 pm

    Oh it’s gorgeous – but a wee bit spooky looking too.

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      March 29, 2011 11:15 pm

      Isn’t it though? It genuinely spooked me when I happened across it.

  6. March 29, 2011 10:45 pm

    I love the name, ‘hornbeam’. It’s another Entish one.

    Re your comment on my A9 post, I take my hat off to you doing a school run on the A9. I did a school run across central Edinburgh for several years, from where we live on the North side to school in Morningside, until it made more sense for the children to take the bus. I now only do that run if my daughter has to take her clarsach to school. But I’d choose city centre Edinburgh in the rush hour over the A9 any day.

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      March 29, 2011 11:18 pm

      It is a good Entish name – I hadn’t thought of that! 🙂

      A9 or city rush hour: a grim choice. Needs must, however, and at least we do have a beautiful route.

  7. Margaret Lambert permalink
    March 30, 2011 4:32 pm

    I hope that you’ll post this same ancient survivor again, when it surprises everyone by resurrecting itself with leaves. A bird’s nest would really complete the transformation, but you can’t arrange that…

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      March 30, 2011 6:28 pm

      Yes, I’ll try to remember to do that. It’ll be lovely to see the spring leaves on it, and we will be able to see the shape of its canopy properly.

  8. March 31, 2011 11:18 pm

    What a fabulous tree. I bet it could tell many a fascinating story of days gone by, you must ask it and let us know what it says!
    Wonderful to see youth and beauty co-existing with such age and wisdom.

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      April 1, 2011 11:53 am

      Indeed, I should be practising my Entish! I do love the way that trees can combine extreme old age with annual rejuvenation.

  9. April 1, 2011 7:43 am

    Wonderful photos & what a magnificent survivor. I look forward to more photos of the resurrection.

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      April 1, 2011 11:54 am

      Thanks, Lyn, I’ll try to remember to revisit it later in the spring.

  10. October 17, 2013 12:26 pm

    Wow, what a remarkable tree! It does indeed look like a living ghost. I wonder if it is still alive (having read this post over two years later!)

    • October 17, 2013 10:18 pm

      Yes, it has been going strong this year. I check on it only from a distance, though: it is a genuinely spooky tree and I prefer not to get too close!

      • October 18, 2013 7:06 am

        Wow! I’m glad to know that. It must have a real presence about it.


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