The World’s Loneliest Tree Holds Court on a New Zealand Island

The non-native Sitka spruce stands 120 miles from its closest companion.

loneliest tree in New Zealand

Turney, Palme, University of New South Wales/Scientific Reports

If you scan satellite imagery of Campbell Island, the largest of New Zealand's southernmost subantarctic island group, it won’t be long until you come across what’s been designated “the world’s loneliest tree.” There, tucked into a cove that bears a meandering stream, its large umbrella of pine needles stretches above the rest of the windswept landscape, dwarfing native flora and inviting the curiosity of rare visitors to this uninhabited archipelago. 

What exactly is this unusual outlier doing deep in the Southern Ocean? As you’ve likely guessed, the tree, a Sitka spruce (Picea sitchensis), is not native to the region. In fact, it’s not even native to the entire Southern Hemisphere, its natural habitat some 7,000 miles away along the western part of North America. Local lore states that it was planted sometime at the turn of the twentieth century during a birding expedition by Lord Ranfurly, governor of New Zealand. Some say the seedling was intended as the start of a future plantation. Either way, no other trees ever followed, and today its closest neighbor is nearly 120 miles to the northwest on the Auckland Islands. 

satellite image of loneliest tree
The Ranfurly spruce tree on Campbell Island. Bing Maps

According to Guinness World Records, this makes the “Ranfurly tree” the most remote on the globe—a distinction it inherited from the tragic demise of the previous record-holder. In 1973, the Tree of Ténéré, a 300-year-old solitary acacia in the Sahara Desert with no companions for over 250 miles, was allegedly killed by a drunk truck driver. Its remains today are on display within the Niger National Museum in the capital city of Niamey.

A Proposed Golden Spike Signal Marker

While its far-flung habitat has brought it cultural fame, the Ranfurly tree is also of significant interest to the geological community. Efforts are underway to update the official timeline of Earth’s history, and the Holocene Epoch—which covered the last 11,700 years—is no longer adequate for alone encompassing the massive impact of humanity. Instead, scientists say we’ve entered a new geological epoch called the Anthropocene. While the exact start of the epoch is still being debated, many believe the global dissemination of the radioactive isotope carbon-14 from the atomic bomb tests of the 1950s and '60s should mark the start of what’s called the “Great Acceleration.”

A 2018 study published in the journal Scientific Reports by researchers at the University of New South Wales, Australia, found a peak in the isotope within a ring of the Ranfurly tree representing the latter half of 1965. They argue this Global Stratotype Section and Point (GSSP), or “golden spike”, should serve as an official record of the start of the Anthropocene. 

“It's got to be something that reflects a global signal," Prof. Chris Turney told BBC News. "The problem with any Northern Hemisphere records is that they largely reflect where most major human activity has happened. But this Christmas tree records the far-reaching nature of that activity and we can't think of anywhere more remote than the Southern Ocean."

Growing Strong

Despite the harsh, subantarctic conditions on Campbell Island, the Ranfurly spruce is thriving, with researchers saying its growth rate is five to ten times that of its natural range. Nonetheless, the tree has yet to produce any cones, which implies that it may remain “stuck” in a pre-reproductive juvenile phase. The likeliest cause for this is attributed to the meteorological staff stationed on the island, who decades earlier removed the conifer’s central trunk to serve as a Christmas tree. 

Nonetheless, this action may have actually saved the Ranfurly tree from passing on its title to the next loneliest tree-in-waiting. Because it’s not reproducing, and does not serve a threat to local native flora, the New Zealand Department of Conservation presently has no plans to remove it. 

Interested in paying the world’s loneliest tree a visit? As Campbell Island is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, access is tightly restricted and a permit is required to land. You can learn more about expeditions to this wild part of the world by visiting here

View Article Sources
  1. "Remotest Tree." Guinness World Records.

  2. Turney, Chris S. M., et al. "Global Peak in Atmospheric Radiocarbon Provides a Potential Definition for the Onset of the Anthropocene Epoch in 1965." Scientific Reports, vol. 8, no. 1, 2018, doi:10.1038/s41598-018-20970-5