If you’ve never thought of a tree as creepy, hark back to your memories of the grouchy apple trees in Wizard of Oz or Sleepy Hollow’s Tree of the Dead. There’s something undeniably sinister about their armlike branches and the way you can sometimes discern faces in their bark. Certain species are creepier than others, like the teaks in southern Africa that “bleed” or the cypresses whose gnarled roots protrude from U.S. swamps.
Here are eight of the world’s most frightening trees, from a warty Brazilian grape tree to a Canadian pine that refuses to die and the spookiest species in between.
It’s the peculiar blade-shaped roots that make Sakisima-suonoki trees so different and decidedly creepy. Because the species grows in Japan’s subtropical regions, its roots must compensate for the extreme moisture and lack of sunlight by reaching up out of their soil confines toward the sky. The result is a strange scene in which the tree looks to be held in place by woody, wavy mermaid tails.
Joshua trees are succulents rather than true trees. They’re members of the desert-loving Yucca family. Still, they’re generally accepted as trees because of their woody stems and outstretched limbs crowned with pom-poms of spiky leaves.
Native to the North American Southwest, Joshua trees create a bizarre scene in the sweltering Mojave Desert. Perhaps because they look like skeletons of trees rather than trees themselves, especially when surrounded by vast expanses of seemingly post-apocalyptic nothingness, these wannabe trees have acquired a rather eerie reputation.
The first person to ever record their existence was the explorer John C. Frémont, famous for leading the 19th-century expeditions to the Far West. He wrote of the Joshua tree’s “stiff and ungraceful form,” describing it as “the most repulsive tree in the vegetable kingdom.”
Angkor Wat’s Strangler Figs
Not all figs are as unsettling as the ones that have grown over the top of—yes—the largest temple complex on Earth. Colossal “strangler figs” (Ficus gibbosa) along with even larger silk-cotton trees are overgrowing Cambodia’s famous 900-year-old Angkor Wat ruins. Their burly roots wrap around doorways and coil around ancient, crumbling pavilions like menacing snakes. The trees are slowly eating away at the prominent Ta Prohm temple, one of the largest structures in the complex.
The bloodwood tree is a type of teak that grows in southern Africa—particularly near the Namibia-Angola border. Its grey-brown bark resembles that of just about any other hardwood tree, but what flows beneath it is downright chilling. The bloodwood tree is called so because it “bleeds” bright-red sap when it’s cut or wounded. Like real blood, the sap these trees ooze actually seals their cuts and heals them.
The bald cypress that commonly grows in the southeast U.S. is spooky not only because it thrives in snake- and gator-infested swamps. It also often grows anthropomorphic roots that protrude from the water and look like twisted, skeletal hands and fingers. This kind of root is called a pneumatophore. It’s believed to help send oxygen down to the drowned roots and also possibly to act as an anchor.
The Burmis Tree
The Burmis Tree is a historical landmark and tourist attraction in Alberta, Canada. It’s a limber pine that lost its needles and died way back in the ’70s—at the ripe old age of 600 to 750 years old. After it died, it continued to stand barren for some 20 years against the majestic mountainous backdrop of the Canadian Rockies. In 1998, it finally toppled over. By then, though, the community of Burmis had already developed an attachment to it and resolved to prop it up using stainless steel.
This odd tree is known in South America as Jabuticaba. Though it grows only in sunshiny, tropical areas of Brazil—not in dark forests or swamps, like other creepy species—it can look quite eerie when it produces its signature deep-purple fruits. These fruits, often compared to grapes in flavor, grow all over the bark of the tree rather than from its branches as other fruit-bearing trees would. In season, it looks almost as though the tree is covered in large warts.
Another unnerving tree species endemic to South America, the walking palm is known for sprouting legs that allow it to “walk” from shade to sunshine or away from its point of germination. Amazing or creepy, depending on how you look at it, the tree boasts the same sort of anthropomorphic features as the bald cypress. Needless to say, you probably wouldn’t want to stumble upon a towering, humanlike walking palm in the rainforest.