Sunday, January 03, 2021
The loneliest tree in the world
Spruce in the South Pacific lives a loner existence
Campbell Island is located between mainland New Zealand and Antarctica. The island is characterized by lush flora and fauna and the only tree on the island. This spruce is a mystery to researchers to this day, because nobody knows exactly how old it is or how the tree got there.
The loneliest tree in the world grows between New Zealand and the Antarctic on a deserted piece of earth. The single Sitka spruce on Campbell Island has even made it into the Guinness Book of Records because it survived the wild winds of the inhospitable region even without the company of conspecifics. “It is believed that the most remote tree ever is a lone spruce on Campbell Island, whose closest colleague is probably over 222 kilometers away on the Auckland Islands,” the entry says.
But both the exact origin and the age of the eccentric are a mystery to this day – despite extensive research. One theory is that the Earl of Ranfurly, the 15th governor of New Zealand, planted the tree between 1901 and 1907. This is why the spruce is sometimes called the “Ranfurly tree”. “Given the speed at which the tree is growing, I don’t think it was planted that early,” says Jonathan Palmer of the University of New South Wales.
He had traveled to Campbell Island specifically to extract its secrets from the tree. However, the core samples that were taken did not provide any definitive information about the age because they did not reach the core of the tree. One thing is certain: “The Sitka spruce on Campbell Island is very far from home,” explains the weather observer Mark Crompton, who has participated in numerous expeditions to the region and spent several years there. Because this type of spruce is actually native to North America, where it thrives between Alaska and California – literally at the other end of the world.
It is downright ironic that it is a non-native, introduced species that grows on the protected island, says Palmer. “The tree is there for historical reasons, but technically it should be removed as it has the potential to produce seeds and cause problems.” Because it is considered an invasive species, the spruce is monitored by nature conservation authorities. However, no viable seeds or cones have yet been found.
Spruce top used as a Christmas tree every year?
In ideal conditions, Sitka spruces can reach heights of up to 100 meters. But the sub-Antarctic island in the Pacific isn’t exactly known for nice weather. It rains an average of 325 days per year with only about 600 hours of sunshine. “The total misery. There are always low clouds and it drizzles incessantly,” says Crompton. Nevertheless, the tree is healthy – even if it has only grown ten meters high to this day. “It is compact and grows in width because it is constantly being whipped by the wind.” In photos it looks as if the tree is not so lonely, as it is surrounded by plenty of green. However, the neighboring plants are shrubs, grasses, ferns and heather plants, but not trees.
The fact that the spruce never shines in its full splendor could also have something to do with the scientists who have been researching the local flora and fauna on Campbell Island for many years. Rumor has it that they cut the top every year to use it as a Christmas tree, says Aaron Russ, whose parents have been touring the region with their company “Heritage Expeditions” since 1984.
Today he runs the company with his brother. The father was a botanist, and the family’s declared goal was and is to raise people’s awareness of nature and its protection through responsible expedition trips. “The lonely Sitka spruce is physically inconspicuous, but culturally very important,” Russ is convinced. Researchers found that the samples taken could represent a potential marker for the beginning of the Anthropocene – a term for a new geological age in which humans had a significant influence on nature.
The whole of Campbell Island is meanwhile an important nature reserve that attracts animal and plant lovers and scientists to the sub-Antarctic region every year. The British botanist Joseph Hooker once raved that the island had flora “that is unique outside the tropics”. The fauna is also impressive: Numerous rare bird species live on Campbell Island, many of them endemic. “Campbell Island is a treasure for the whole world. New Zealand is just fortunate to be its steward,” says Russ. And the treasure also includes a small, lonely tree that defies all adversities – and still poses puzzles