Wildlife Column: The magic of the medusa trees

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In Greek mythology the medusa was a monster, one of three known as a Gorgon, and often described as a winged human female but with live, poisonous snakes instead of hair. If you caught sight of her awful face then you would be turned to stone.

However, today the term ‘medusoid’ is used to describe things which are tentacle-like and resemble Medusa’s locks of live snakes. I and colleague Dr Paul Ardron, whilst doing research on upland, ancient trees, made a remarkable discovery – of twisted, multi-stemmed oak-trees on remote crags and boulder-strewn hillsides. These amazing specimens, although discovered firstly in the Peak District have since turned up in suitable habitats across the UK, but they have been largely overlooked. In some ways, this oversight is understandable since these contorted and twisted specimens are often hidden away and not obvious. Paul and I christened the trees ‘medusa oaks’ or ‘medusoid oaks’ and the name has stuck. They could easily have been described as ‘hydra trees’ after the many-headed, multi-tentacled Greek monsters.

Medusoid’ is used to describe things which are tentacle-like

It seems that these aged trees are distorted by combinations of extreme weather events and exposure in cold winters, by animal grazing, and probably by human cutting for fuel-wood. In some cases at least, the trees appear to be of native British genetics, (as opposed to many planted oaks from say Holland in the 1700s and 1800s), and with a tendency to twist and turn their main stems and boughs.

This corkscrew habit can be seen in just a few oaks at lower-level ancient woods across the area. Unlike the sprawling medusa trees, these specimens can be tall, upright oaks but with twisted and contorted crowns and the growth seems to be natural. We call these trees ‘corkscrew oaks’ to reflect this genetic tendency to contortion.

The medusas are remarkable specimens and difficult to age as they sprawl and twist and envelope large boulders and smaller rocks; often without any obvious starting point. Limbs have been lost and roots severed but the trees cling tenaciously to life and to the crags and boulder-slopes. These truly ‘ancient’ veterans reflect history and nature over countless centuries.