What is a veteran tree?
If you asked 10 different people to define a veteran tree, you would probably get 10 different definitions, all of which contain at least a grain of truth. The definition of a veteran tree is not precise. Many people tend to focus on the chronological age of a tree however a specific age limit cannot be defined, since this will differ very much between tree species: a 150 year old birch is ancient, while a 150 year old oak is still a youngster. Instead, it is better to look at features about the tree such as holes, hollows, decaying wood or an obvious generally gnarled shape. Another clue might be the tree’s historical and cultural background.
Closely related to the above ‘age definition’ is the ‘life stage definition’. Most people are very familiar with young and mature trees. But we often forget that the life of a tree does not suddenly stop when it has reached its maximum size. A tree slowly ages, loses some vigour, sheds a limb and ‘grows down’ (i.e. it may become shorter in height). In fact this post-mature or ancient stage may well be the longest phase of its life, although in reality it is difficult to determine precisely.
But a tree does not need to be very old to show veteran characteristics. As a result of its environment, natural damage or active management, it can start to show the features of old age when much younger. These trees are not ancient, but they certainly are veterans. This is the most commonly accepted definition nowadays: a veteran tree is a tree which has markedly ancient characteristics, irrespective of chronological age. The term ancient is applied specifically to trees that are ancient in years (Lonsdale, 2014).
‘Ancient characteristics’ may include decaying wood in the trunk, branches or roots, fungal fruiting bodies, hollows and a naturally retrenching crown which is gradually becoming smaller and smaller. These features are not a sign that the tree is about to die, in fact a veteran tree may stay alive and healthy for many decades and often centuries and even dying veteran trees may endure for many decades.
Trees may be of interest not because of their age but because of their historical significance. They may reflect past land use, be connected with a person or an event or be part of a designed landscape.
Be sure to appreciate and value these irreplaceable trees whenever you meet them.