What is a Wolf Tree?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A wolf tree is an unusually large tree which dominates the surrounding environment because of its size. Wolf trees tend to have a very large crown, and to be heavily branched. They are also usually older than the surrounding trees, although this is not always the case. Many natural forests have wolf trees, and these trees can also be spotted in settings where people are taking a relatively hands-off approach to forest management.

Woman with hand on her hip
Woman with hand on her hip

Classically, a wolf tree is a tree which managed to survive when an older stand of trees was damaged or significantly depleted, making it at least a generation older than the surrounding trees. For example, a single tree might be left after clearing to create a meadow, a stand of trees might be damaged by fires or storms leaving one or two survivors, or a stand might be heavily logged, leaving only a few trees behind. In these cases, the elimination of other trees allows a wolf tree to grow big and strong, because there is no competition, and younger generations grow up around it.

In forest management, a wolf tree can represent a problem. It usually eliminates competition in the surrounding area by monopolizing nutrients and sunlight, making it difficult for other trees and shrubs to grow. It may also not have very much financial value, as older trees can become twisted and knotty, making their timber largely useless. Wolf trees are aesthetically interesting, however, and they often provide habitat for animals, so they do in fact have ecological value.

The origins of the term "wolf tree" are a bit obscure. A variety of theories have been put forward, including the idea that such trees are like "lone wolves" because they tend to grow alone and isolated since other trees cannot survive around them. Others have suggested that since many cultures have historically thought of wolves as thieves, people coined the term "wolf tree" to describe a tree which was perceived as a thief of resources.

Dominant trees do, of course, seed new generations of their own, and they do eventually die, allowing new generations to grow up and take their place. These trees are often of interest to human visitors to the forest, and they can also make useful landmarks when people are giving directions. Telling people to look for a large or unusually shaped tree can help people spot the landmark well in advance, making it easier to follow directions.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments

anon288208

Does this tree have a deep root system? How does it manage in a storm? Is it like a type of rain forest tree in which they root system is relatively close to the surface (therein stealing the nutrients)?

anon217341

We have a wolf tree on our property. We have gradually cleared the land but let the wolf tree remain. It takes three men joining hands to go around the tree. It has huge limbs and is very tall and full at the top. We always take visitors to see our special tree. Evidently, the land was open fields surrounded by stone walls at one time and then the forest grew up around the tree.

I've heard that farmers left these large trees in the field to provide some shade for the animals and its lone nature gave its name, the wolf tree.

pastanaga

It sounds like this kind of tree is very beautiful. I have seen some like this before and they always seem like they have a lot of history.

It makes me sad to think of them in terms of how valuable the wood is, but I suppose in some cases a wolf tree might not be so unique as to need protection from felling.

I wonder how much trees like this can affect the evolution of a species or even just the ecology of a forest. Once it is established, it would be hard to kill such a tree naturally, and it would live for a very long time producing a lot of seedlings. Even just one tree could make a big difference to the surrounding land, or put a lot of genes into play.

croydon

This is so interesting. I've never heard a tree referred to as a wolf tree before. But, my explanation for the term was that it was a tree at the top of the food chain, like a wolf. It had more access to sun, deeper roots etc, so it could out compete the small trees around it, like the wolf can out compete the smaller predators around it.

Of course, this was just the explanation that jumped to my mind, and language usually doesn't follow rules like this. It does make me wonder how long people have been referring to this kind of tree as a "wolf tree" though.

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