Sunday, May 12, 2019

What Shall We Call This?

tree along the trail to the top of Goodnow Mountain has been called the Octopus TreeAnyone who’s spent time in the woods has seen them, a tree growing on top of a large stone or boulder, with its roots winding down around the stone to find nourishment, finally, in the surrounding earth.

The tree could be a yellow birch or a spruce and we see them in many stages of their lives from seedlings growing out of a bed of moss and ferns to very mature trees.

They are one of the great curiosities of the woods, often causing one to stop and examine, marveling at the tenacity and beauty of life. Surely this peculiar plant and stone association must have a name?

I did a little looking around online and first found epilith. An epilith is “a plant, fungus or other organism that grows upon rock” and certainly a tree is a plant, so is this it? But mostly the term seems to be used to describe smaller organisms like lichens, mosses, and ferns and almost never for trees. Lithophytes are “plants that grow in or on rocks” but most of these seem to take their nutrition from their immediate rock environment and not, as in our inquiry, by extending their roots into the ground. Paul Hai at the Newcomb Visitor Interpretive Center explained to me how the exposed roots of such a tree thicken and coarsen to provide structure for the growing tree in such a precarious location.

With neither of things seeming quite right for this phenomenon, I took it upon myself to try to imagine and invent one. Dusting off my distant memory of high school Latin, I took “-lith” the word forming element meaning stone or rock and combined it with several prefixes for the tree or plant side of the equation. Flora means the plants of a particular region or habitat, so with this we can create Floralith. Take a piece of dendrology, the scientific study of trees, and we have Dendrolith. With silvi, as in silviculture, the science and art of growing trees, we get Silvilith. And combined with arbor, we could call it an Arborlith.

The sculptor Robert Wick created a bronze piece in 1996 entitled “Arborlith” which consists of a great rock sitting in a tree and out of that rock a living tree grows. About this work, he said, “Rocks hold the moisture and minerals that enrich the tree and help to sustain it in real life. So, too, in this work of art, the bronze and rock sustain real trees.”

Then there’s the less literal route. There’s a much-photographed stone engulfing tree on the Goodnow Mountain trail that’s called the “Octopus Tree.” Or when queried, my friend Mac went straight to “Stonehugger” or “Rockhugger.” All of these say it all, too. In the end, I’m inclined to agree with Mac, because there’s not enough hugging in the world these days.

What do you think? I would love to hear from you. Let’s create a new word together for this curiosity we all love.

Photo of tree along the trail to the top of Goodnow Mountain has been called the Octopus Tree.

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Steven Engelhart is the Executive Director of Adirondack Architectural Heritage (AARCH), the regional historic preservation organization of the Adirondack Park. AARCH's mission is to promote better public understanding, appreciation and stewardship of the region's built environment.

Among AARCH's many activities are: sponsoring a series of tours of historic places; offering workshops; giving slide presentations; publishing a newsletter; managing Camp Santanoni, advocating on behalf of threatened historic sites; and providing technical assistance to individuals, organizations and local governments.

Steven is a native of the region and has a BA from SUNY Plattsburgh and a MS in historic preservation from the University of Vermont. He is the author of Crossing the River: Historic Bridges of the AuSable River, a small book about bridges and local history of the AuSable Valley. He resides in Wadhams and loves to hike, canoe, read, play the banjo, explore the region, and spend time with family and friends.

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37 Responses

  1. Phil Terrie says:

    Very nice! Reminds me of a similar phenomenon that I have always found appealing: Sometimes a seed–often yellow birch, for some reason–will fall on and take root in a rotting stump. The new tree grows, while the stump rots. Eventually, the stump is completely gone, and the trunk and roots of the birch look like an upside-down hatrack.

    (Excessively pedantic footnote: the “litho-” root is Greek, not Latin.)

  2. Robert Kibbey says:

    I’m staying with “Octopus Tree”

  3. ADKResident says:

    How I appreciate articles like this! Thank you, Steve Engelheart. And I do like the name, “Stonehugger” and what it implies!
    When I see one of these phenomenal spectacles while on a hike I have often looked at it as a metaphor for someone/something that has taken an obstacle in their pathway and instead of stopping or retreating, use the very stumbling block meant to hinder as a stepping stone and means of growth towards their unique destiny. For me, nature has given us a visual image of a true overcomer. Therefore, I shall name this uncommon display of beauty, “Superātor” which is the Latin word for overcomer.

  4. Bill Ott says:

    Thank you Mr. Englehart for a very interesting article. I have always called them prop-root trees, picking up that term long ago. However, I now see that term applies to trees that develop additional roots or buttresses for support in soft terrain. Too soon old, too late smart.

  5. Boreasfisher says:

    “Rockhuggers” as a colloquial expression gets to the meat (or stone) of the matter pretty well for me.

    What I still don’t quite understand is what the tree gets from this association with a very large interference in its normal connection to soil other than the delayed access to essential nutrients and minerals. Would be interesting to know what the species that can perform this seemingly miraculous feat bring to the task that other species cannot.

    The boulders seem to me to be unusual too…glacial erratics in the landscape. Do these trees have some special ability to break them down? Thanks for sharing your good observations and questions..

  6. Frank says:

    Where is this located

  7. Brainy46 says:

    This was a charming article to read, so glad I found this! I think Arborlith is a great name, because although the author’s case that there are not enough hugs in the world is certainly valid, I would also argue that there are not enough cool words with. ” -lith” in common use right now either!

  8. Amy Godine says:

    “Bad-Hair-Day Tree”? I mean, jeez. Look at it.
    Maybe it would sound more persuasive in Greek….

  9. Popski says:

    I love seeing these Treehuggers on rocks poking up from a lake or stream. Especially rocks with multiple species of fauna. Then a Zen garden comes to mind.

  10. Mara Jayne Miller says:

    Hello, Steve:

    Tree cradle – is my choice.

    etymology of “cradle”: – in Old English, cradol “little bed”

    in Haut Deutsch – kratze “basket carried on the back”

  11. Joe says:

    How about “Rootrock”?

  12. Donald Thompson says:

    Nature bats last.

  13. Justin Farrell says:


  14. Boreas says:

    We always called them “walkers”.

  15. Rodney G Christman says:

    It’s a Rock-octopus

  16. Terry says:

    The rock represents the Adirondacks.
    The tree represents us, caretakers of the Adirondacks, like AARCH is.
    Therefore, the name I like is ‘COTA,’ Caretakers of the Adirondacks.’

  17. S Russell says:

    This may not be correct, but I was once taught by a local naturalist that these trees got their starts as seedlings embedded in a crevice, thick moss or indentation of a rock that had enough soil, minerals, etc. to sprout. Over time the roots of the seedlings spread out over the rock and downward, seeking their natural habitat in the ground below.

  18. David W Morrison says:

    ball and claw

  19. Jerry says:

    Thank you for the interesting article and photo. I have a similar photo from Site 90 at Limekiln Campgrounds that has an “eye”. The elongated trunk rise and root structure make it seem more like a squid-o-lith than an octopus gripping a rock. Bears seem attracted to this site, too.

  20. Charlie S says:

    Frank says: “Where is this located”

    >The author states in this article…”There’s a much-photographed stone engulfing tree on the Goodnow Mountain trail that’s called the “Octopus Tree.”
    This is where this tree is. I recognized it immediately as I was up that mountain two summers ago and took photos of it. Very impressive.

  21. Kathy says:

    “Lord of the Rings”…..trees rooted on rocks can get up easier to walk than pulling up roots from soil…

  22. JUDY says:


  23. Larry says:

    A ranger in the redwood forest once told me that some of those giants that grew over fallen logs (that later deteriorated), were used by early settlers as cow pens. How about “rock pen”? I am enjoying the creative thoughts of the readers. Thank you for the article Mr. Engelhart.

  24. says:

    Sorry but I saw this on Game of thrones last week.

  25. Makee ѕure soil іs well drained аs they’ll suchcumb to root-rot.

  26. Tom says:

    My Granddaughter and Grandson call them “nature friends”.

  27. Sean Fagan says:

    An Arborplinth

  28. Carol Drozdyk says:

    Nice article! I’m going for Arborlith or Stonehugger.

  29. “Old Friends.”

  30. drdirt says:

    Like the trees that grow too close to streambeds, we always say ‘Mama told you not to sprout there’!!!

  31. I thoroughly enjoyed your article which a friend forwarded to me.
    I am the author of the book “Trunks of the Gunks” a photographic journey through the Shawangunk Mountains, showing many of these rock huggers but also other amazing formations of roots, stumps, etc. I am sure you would enjoy looking at it. A few of these images can be found on my website under the “Trunks” tab (though it is in need of serious updating since i have so many new great images)

  32. TAB says:

    I know where this is. I’ve seen it in person many times and it was also photographed for National Geographic Magazine.

  33. John Jongen says:

    Name that Goodenow Mt. tree-root monument “Large Octopus Befriending a Beluga Whale”.

  34. WordSlinger says:

    Obviously, the ultimate “mine!” gesture, with applicable add-on adjectives that can be
    referenced via the shortened “def”…..descriptors
    like: definitely, deferentially, defiantly
    I like to think the rock is as into this relationship as the tree is..!!

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