Anyone 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.