A Wolf Tree

By Peter Gilmer, EMGV

I recently heard the term wolf tree, and wondered what in the world that could mean. I have since learned the meaning of the term and the significance of these trees, and have discovered that we have one on our property in northern Durham county.

When settlers from Europe came to this country, they felt the forest was in their way. They were used to open fields, grazing animals and plowed soils. As they took over and cleared land, a few trees would be saved to shade the farm animals and produce nuts for the squirrels. Without the usual competition from neighboring trees common in a forest setting, the lone trees would send branches out laterally to to expose their leaves to the sun, rather than having to grow quickly towards the sky. The lower limbs of a wolf tree would not become senescent due to the shade of neighboring trees and the profile of the tree would be very different from the same species growing in the forest.

When I first saw the wolf white oak on our property, I thought something was wrong with it and that it might be dying. The main trunk was short, maybe 15 feet, and there were too many branches, some nearly horizontal. I have learned that this is common for a solo tree in a pasture setting. If the pasture is abandoned, new trees will grow but the wolf tree might have a 100 year head start, so it retains its branching habit. Our tree is easily seen in Google Earth images, surrounded now by evergreens, mostly pine and some cedar. The pasture is no longer recognizable.

The white oak (Quercus alba) on the left notable for its age, size, and habit. The main trunk is relatively short, with many branches, some of which are nearly horizontal, and it grew this way because of limited competition for many years, as the surrounding land was likely pasture (now a young evergreen forest).The white oak on the right grew in a forest setting, needing to get tall and narrow quickly to compete with the tall sweet gum and tulip popular already starting to leaf out in this photo. Photos by Peter Gilmer.

Wolf trees can be quite old. I measured the circumference of ours to be 14’ 9” at chest height, and using the tree age calculator, this tree started life in about 1740! That is amazing. Decades before the American Revolution. Beneath this tree, not seen well on the photograph, is a low stone wall surrounding an abandoned Cemetary. There are seven grave stones, and some are legible, dating to the 1850s. The tree would have been ~100 years old at the time, and the loan tree on the edge of the pasture was a perfect place for the grave site.

The term wolf tree may have originated from the appearance of the tree surrounded by much younger trees, like a lone wolf surrounded by other animals who are protecting themselves from being singled out for the kill.

These trees were once thought to be problematic from a forestry standpoint. Their multiple low branches meant that there were not long stretches of available wood for harvest, where as the same tree in a forest setting might have 60+ feet of trunk. The trees were thought to use up a disproportionate amount of nutrients, and removal was recommended in older forestry texts. It is now known that these trees actually provide significant habitat for birds, reptiles, insects, and mammals, ecological services that far exceed those provided by forest trees in a per tree comparison. These giants are to be treasured. I wonder how many this old still remain in Durham County.

*Further Reading*

Wolf Trees: Elders of the Eastern Forest (American Forests)

Defining out Landscapes: What is a Wolf Tree? (Heritage Conservancy)

Wolf Trees Provide Insight into the History of Our Land (MSU Extension)