Trees are some of the oldest known living organism on the planet. Surviving on this planet for 385 million years, only a handful of organisms live longer lives, mostly sponges, coral, and bacteria. Trees have survived nearly every disaster this planet has seen and there are trees on this planet that have been alive for millennia. While the trees themselves cannot speak, the record they contain inside their bark help modern scientists understand what the world looked in ancient times. For the record the oldest living human on record was 122 years, a mere speck of time to some of these trees.
The Mediterranean’s oldest tree is known as The Tree of One Hundred Horses (Il Castagna dei Cento Cavalli). Located near the Mt. Etna volcano, this enormous chestnut is believed to be somewhere between 2,000 and 4,000 years old and may be the oldest in Europe. Its name comes from a legend about 100 knights and their horses who sought refuge underneath the tree during a thunderstorm.
It is amazing that this tree has survived as long as it has considering that Mt. Etna has had over 60 eruptions since 1600 AD. The tree is only 7.2 kilometers from the volcano’s crater! Over the years the tree has split into several different trunks but it shares one common root system making it a single specimen. The tree has been painted many times and is the subject of several poems and songs from Medieval times to modern times.
It gained its name when Princess Giovanna of Aragon and her company of one hundred knights and retainers sought shelter underneath the tree during a thunderstorm. Giovanna was part of the ruling dynasty of Sicily and became the wife of King Ferdinand I of Naples making her family one of the most powerful in the southern part of Italy. While a legend, this could have happened as the tree has a circumference of 190 feet, a world record!
The tree can be found in the town of Sant’Alfio on the eastern side of Sicily behind a gate to protect it from vandalism. Nearby is another ancient chestnut tree, the Chestnut of the Boat (il Castagna della Nava) which is around 1,000 years old. Its branches are shaped like a boat. Let’s hope the fungal blight never makes it to Sicily.