Groot from Guardians of the Galaxy may be one of cinema’s quirkiest superheroes, but he’s certainly not the first movie tree to put up a good fight. From the crotchety apple-hurlers in The Wizard of Oz to the child-snatching tree in Poltergeist, leafy antagonists have held their own throughout cinema history. But what’s the best way to deal with a hostile tree? We challenged plant expert Michael Hagen, curator of the native plant garden and the rock garden at New York Botanical Garden, to a hypothetical series of fights with iconic movie trees. To find out how to tame a Whomping Willow or conquer an Ent, read on.
The Wizard of Oz (1939)
Trees: The crotchety apple trees who yell at Dorothy for picking their fruit without permission, then hurl apples at her and Scarecrow.
Fighting Strategy: “I have to say, I don’t really blame those apple trees! I mean, along comes Dorothy, and she just pulls the apples off without asking, and then the Scarecrow proceeds to antagonize them, claims their apples have worms — so I think they’re getting a bad rap. But if you do have bad-tempered apple trees, the best thing to do is be nice to them. Most trees do tend to behave very badly if they’re mistreated, which usually means not watering them, not feeding them, digging around their roots — apple trees in particular. So, the best thing you can do for your apple tree is to keep it well watered, keep it fertilized, and try and keep any plants cleared away all the way to the drip line of the tree. You really want to keep that area clear. Then they won’t be grumpy.”
Tree: A gnarled tree that comes to life, grabs a child through his bedroom window and attempts to swallow him.
Fighting strategy: “Just looking at that tree in the movie, it did look like the main problem was that it had been very badly pruned. So I think it had every right to be in a bad temper. Any time you see an ugly tree, chances are someone has pruned it at the wrong time of year or not known what they’re doing. But if you’re ever in doubt as to whether your old tree is dangerous, you really do have to bring a licensed arborist in to look at it.”
The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002)
Trees: The Ents, giant tree-creatures who are gentle in nature, but band together and fight when their forests are attacked.
Fighting Strategy: “The one thing they do seem to fear is fire, but the trick is to get close enough to set fire to them and then not get squashed. If one would have one’s druthers, the safest way to deal with one is probably thermobaric weapons. But failing access to weapons banned by the Geneva Convention, a very heavy-duty chainsaw is probably your best bet. You have to be able to get those long wiry arms and lop them off as they come at you. I don’t think an axe is going to do it.”
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2002, 2004)
Tree: The Hogwarts Whomping Willow, a tree that uses its limbs to attack or fend off trespassers.
Fighting strategy: “You really do want to keep a wide berth from these extremely dangerous trees, so I think the best way to do that — especially with something like a willow, that does need to be near water — is to cut it off from its water source. One of the few ways to get rid of willows is to dry out the landscape. But that is obviously a long-term strategy. I certainly wouldn’t go anywhere near that Whomping Willow with a pair of pruners, that’s for sure. I suppose if you could sneak up on it, you could get some sort of herbicide into the roots somehow, but that’s kind of fraught with peril…. The only tree I really know that is that aggressive is the strangler fig. It’s a variety of tropical fig that starts out as a vine and grows really quickly up a tree. And what happens is, as soon as it reaches the canopy, it starts to photosynthesize, it pushes the root down outside the trunk of the existing tree, and it ends up killing the tree by, in effect, strangling it. So when you see an adult strangler fig, what you basically see is an empty lattice, because it will kill the host tree in its struggle to get to the light.”
Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)
Tree: A magical tree slowly being killed by the creatures inside it.
Defense strategy: “Actually, our trees are horrendously under assault from all manner of insects. The big issue right now, which you may have seen in the news, is the emerald ash borer, which came in on pallets from China, and our native ash trees have no resistance to it. It lives under the bark of a tree and eats inside the living tissue, so it actually kills the tree from the inside out. Basically, the best way for a tree to fight back is for it to be healthy, because just like us, they have their own immune systems. That’s why it’s important, again, not to go randomly pruning trees, because it will just make wounds for entry of pathogens.”
The Happening (2008) **Spoiler alert!
Trees: All of them. In the movie, ordinary foliage begins producing neurotoxins that cause people to go violently insane.
Fighting strategy: “I was thinking about that, and it’s not so far-fetched a thing, because that is exactly what the trees do every year when they produce pollen. Various trees produce different allergens, so if all of a sudden trees start producing toxic pollen — I mean, who knows? We may start developing terminal allergies to pollen. It already is completely incapacitating for some people. Think about when you go out and your car is just covered with yellow pollen. The mechanism is there already; the trees just have to start doing it and we’re basically done for.”
Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
Tree: Groot, a heroic tree-like humanoid who has the (highly limited) ability to talk.
No fighting strategy, just an appreciation: “I think it’s a remarkably sympathetic portrayal! We’ve had whomping willows, mean apple trees, poltergeist trees — so I think it’s a great move to make a tree a sympathetic figure. If you walked into your garden and your oak tree said 'I am Groot,' I think you’d be amazingly impressed with that.”
Photo credit: @Everett Collection