Botanic Superlatives: The Loneliest Tree

Botanic Superlatives: The Loneliest Tree

April 8, 2011
Photo by: Peter Krohn, 1971

The loneliest tree in the world was a solitary acacia in a remote land. Standing alone in a vast Saharan expanse in Niger's Ténéré region, l'Arbre du Ténéré (the Tree of Ténéré), was modest in size—three meters tall—but its mere survival was both remarkable, and invaluable to desert travelers. "One must see the Tree to believe its existence. What is its secret? ... [It] has become a living lighthouse," wrote an observer in 1939. Indeed, its existence was as improbable as its demise in 1973.

The tree was not always lonely. A millenia or so ago, it had the company of an acacia forest (either Acacia raddiana or Acacia tortilis). By the mid 20th century, climate change had stripped the land of its vegetation and water, transforming the area to an inhospitable desert. The yellow-flowered acacias meanwhile diminished in number, until one remained, the only tree in a 400 kilometer radius. It became an invaluable landmark for desert caravans, and was celebrated for its unlikely endurance. Its survival was demystified when it was discovered that the root system had tapped into water 35 meters below ground, but the Tree of Ténéré was still regarded with superstitious reverence. Neither camels nor humans exploited the tree's resources in an otherwise barren desert. 

In 1973, the acacia's solitary reign came to an end. A drunk truck driver happened to crash into the only tree in the desert, and the Tree of Ténéré snapped and fell into the sand. It was gathered and transported to the capital of Niamey, where it was reassembled at the Niger National Museum. The tree is still there today, where it is perhaps not so lonely. Meanwhile, a metal monument was planted in its original location in the Ténéré desert. The anonymous artist built an ersatz tree of recycled pipes and salvaged auto parts: a sadly appropriate memorial to the Loneliest Tree in the World. 


Image credits: The memorial tree, (left); The tree at the Niger National Museum, Fausto Medici (right)

tenere stamp

Image credits: "Anniversaire de la Mort de l'Arbre du Ténéré", a commemorative stamp issued in 1974; Gouvernement du Niger