Welcome to the Odditree Society

It is dedicated to the admiration of trees shaped unusually by their surroundings.

windswept trees
Windswept trees in the Scilly Isles.

Gideon Mandel / Getty Images

If you've ever paused to admire an unusual-looking tree, then you already understand the appeal and allure of an "odditree." This is a tree whose appearance "deviates from what is to be expected, often in response to external conditions." Odditrees exist everywhere in the world and are a constant source of delight, wonder, and amusement to mindful passersby. 

In Austin, Texas, there is a society dedicated to the admiration of unusual trees. Called the Odditree Society, it was founded in 2013 by artist and architect Ann Armstrong and urban forester Angela Hanson. Over the past few years, the pair has assembled a Field Guide that directs viewers to Austin's most peculiar trees in order to encourage more intimate engagement with trees. 

Why? Because, as Armstrong told Treehugger, "We believe paying closer attention to trees benefits us as individuals while simultaneously building advocacy for the urban forest and trees in general." She explained why this matters more than ever now, in the face of urban expansion:

"In Austin we're lucky to be surrounded by an amazing tree canopy. It's also a city with a rapidly expanding population that's fueling the increased spread of development. There is a little irony here. I would argue that some people (like me!) chose to live here because of the dense layer of oaks, pecans, and ashe juniper. But the allure of trees and greenery that results in increased development often leads to more deforestation and tree damage. So as the City grows, tree advocacy becomes more important."
Odditree Guide Montage

Odditree Society (used with permission)

When asked how the Society encourages people to interact with these trees when they encounter them, Armstrong said the core of the philosophy is to see trees as individuals, with unique history, challenges, and personality. "By encouraging people to tune in and look a little closer at the trees' quirks and deviations, a portal opens up to a more direct and personal relationship with them." Humans' health also benefits from the interaction. Studies have shown that contact with trees boosts mental health, reduces the need for antidepressants, and improves immune defense.

The Odditree Society has an active Instagram page that shares images of beautiful, strange trees from all around the world. It takes submissions from anyone interested in sharing their discoveries, but many of them are Armstrong's own discovered gems. On a recent "odditree odyssey" – a 3,500-mile road trip around the Western U.S. – she said she was able to greatly expand the collection.

I love this idea. While there is no equivalent field guide for my own (small) hometown's trees, a rough one exists in my head from years of walking and biking familiar streets and trails. I know where the biggest maples are, the best stands of silver birch, all the magnolias, a few grand oaks, some towering pines. I'm familiar with all the funny-shaped roots and burls and trunks growing sideways like benches. My kids and I point them out to each other and, from then on, we acknowledge them whenever we pass. To formalize these relationships with a tree is a delightful concept, and it makes me want to draw up my own odditree map. Indeed, I think everyone who loves trees should do something similar for their own home regions.

You can admire the Odditree Society's arboreal images on Instagram, or order your own copy of the field guide if you happen to be in Austin. The point, however, is to start paying attention, to walk with your eyes open and your senses alert. This in itself is a valuable skill. To quote Rob Walker, author of "The Art of Noticing," whose newsletter first introduced me to the Odditree Society, "Cultivating the ability to attend to what others overlook, experiencing 'enchanting reality' as a new and fortuitous gift, is crucial to any creative process." We are better and happier humans for it.