The 12 Finest Trees in Texas: A Photo Tour of the State's Pretty, Historic, Beloved Live Oaks & More

Texans love their trees, whether they're being used for climbing, for getting some desperately needed August shade or as easy-to-remember landmarks for locals making plans to meet each other.

To be sure, there are some less peaceful uses of trees in Texas history: lynching, sniping, chaining people to trunks. But those ugly aberrations -- while they should never be forgotten -- should probably be blamed more on residents than on the trees.

So it's with a clear conscience that we can celebrate Texas trees. The Texas A&M Forest Service has long done so, designating a growing number of "Famous Trees of Texas." In the past 40-plus years, they've given the designation to 87 trees, 65 of which are still living.

The trees can be famous for their beauty, for their historical significance or for having a special place in the hearts of locals.

Let's look at the 12 best -- all still living. Like the one above.

12. Matrimonial Oak, San Saba County A sturdy, shady Texas live oak sitting on the shoulder of a country road, creating a natural tunnel -- that's Texan. Native Americans and newly arrived residents living in "the horse-and-buggy days," the TAMUFS says, all found this tree to be linked to weddings, either getting on one knee under its branches to present an engagement ring, or coming back some time later to have the ceremony in its shade.

And the other 11:

11. Ben Milam Cypress, San Antonio The clash between old and new Texas is stark here: A tree that's seen plenty of history is bang-up against a parking garage. The Ben Milam Cypress, located at the intersection of the San Antonio River and the Riverwalk in the Alamo City. It was from this tree, legend has it, that a Mexican sniper took out Ben Milam with a shot to the head in December 1835. The tree was a favorite spot for snipers to take out Texans trying to go up- or downriver.

10. Century Tree, Texas A&M campus Well, you'd have to figure the Texas A&M Forest Service would find a way to honor a tree in Aggieland. Let's let them have the stage:

Walk under the boughs of the Century Tree with a lover and you will be together forever: so goes the tradition at Texas A&M University. Many an Aggie skirts the spot, while others seek every chance to visit this immense live oak. Large drooping branches rest on the ground, providing ample opportunity for young co-eds to linger with hope for the future.

Yes, that's what coeds do at college campuses: Mooningly pursue their MRS degrees.

9. The Cart War Oak, City of Goliad C'mon, you know all about the Cart War, don't you? Something about Go-Karts? Too many cars involved in chase scenes smashing into fruit carts on their way to hitting a fire hydrant?

Listen up, class: The Cart War was a series of violent incidents between Texan and Mexican teamsters moving merchandise on carts from the Gulf to San Antonio around 1857. The Texans thought the Mexicans were undercutting them with too-low prices.

That wasn't all, of course: "The underlying causes of the event, historians believe, were ethnic and racial hostilities of Texans toward Mexican Texans, exacerbated by the ethnocentrism of the Know-Nothing party and the white anger over Mexican sympathy with black slaves," says The Handbook of Texas.

We just like how the tree somehow reminds us of Angela Davis as opposed to, say, Grace Jones.

8. Goose Island Oak, Aransas County Show me a kid who sees this tree and doesn't immediately want to climb it, and I'll show you a kid playing too many video games. Located in Goose Island State Park near Rockport, the tree -- thought to be 1,100 years old and at one time considered the largest live oak in the U.S. -- is reputed to have been visited by the allegedly cannibalistic Karankawas, Cabeza de Vaca and Sieur de LaSalle. Oh, and probably some high school kids getting drunk or high.

7. Old Evergreen Tree, Lee County Lots of people have trees in their front yards, but there are front-yard trees and then there are front-yard trees.

This monster gets no points for being imaginatively named, but it once was the centerpiece of a thriving little town called Evergreen. Sam Houston often stretched out in its shade, and TAMUFS says the town included "inns, well-stocked stores, and a schoolhouse."

But then the railroads bypassed the town, and it more or less withered away. The tree still stands, though, defiantly daring anyone to move it.

6. Baptist Oak, Goliad There's nothing like a tree branch arching over a road to create a tunnel, but if you spend too much time admiring Baptist Oak as you're driving, you may find yourself wrapped around the other tree -- the one in the middle of the freaking road.

5. Urrea Oaks, Refugio Named after a Mexican general, this dramatically shaped group of trees commemorates an ugly incident in the often-ugly conflict between Texans and Mexicans. In 1836 Urrea was leading troops to Refugio, which was mostly abandoned but still housed some holdouts who hadn't escaped to the Texan army in Goliad. Thirty Texans snuck out and got within three miles of Goliad before being captured.

They were lined up under Urrea's orders and executed. A week later, about 100 more Texans met the same fate after they surrendered to the general.

4. Treaty Oak, Austin It's not every tree that gets itself named "the most perfect specimen of a North American tree" by the American Forestry Association (now called American Forests) and gets inducted into the group's Hall of Fame.

But, just as in a Behind The Tree Music episode, such fame and fortune could not go on forever, and Treaty Oak's high-flying years came to a crashing halt in 1989 when it was poisoned. Some guy thought poisoning the tree would help his love life.

A nationwide wave of support brought the best tree doctors and experts to Austin to help Treaty Oak, and even though its death warrant was written countless times, it survives to this day.

3. Half-Way Oak, Stephens County Half-Way Oak doesn't make its way onto this list because of any historical significance (the best the TAMUFS can come up with is "may well have sheltered Doc Holliday or Wyatt Earp," which of course leads to the idea that it may well have not). It doesn't make the list because it is halfway between two booming Texas cities ("it is roughly halfway between Breckenridge to the north and Cisco to the south"). And it's not exactly in a picturesque setting -- after the state threatened to move it in order to widen U.S. Highway 183, citizens protested, so instead the tree sits now in the middle of the highway.

So why is it on the list? Because even if it isn't in a totally bucolic setting as semis roll by, the tree and some picnic tables make a neat stop for fidgety kids to work off excess road-trip energy. That's good enough for us. even if it didn't shelter Doc Holliday or Wyatt Earp. Or both of them, for that matter.

2. Panna Maria Oaks, Karnes County If someone had asked us earlier this week where the oldest Polish settlement in North America was, we probably would have thought of somewhere near Chicago.

Nope, it's right here in Texas, in the tiny town of Panna Maria, home to the Panna Maria Oaks. The trees sit near the Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, a building that went up in 1877 to replace an 1855 church destroyed in a fire.

1. Zachary Taylor Oak, Rockport The Zachary Taylor Oak may not be the most compelling tree on the list, but, you know, it's named after Zachary Taylor. Old Rough & Ready's presidential career lasted just 16 months before his death, and it resulted in the presidency of....Millard Fillmore. Dazzling!!!

In a sense, the tree lives up to its namesake's White House term. Here, according to TAMUFS, is his connection with the tree after landing his troops hoping to invade Mexico:

On July 29, Taylor attempted to take two companies of men with him to the mainland in the lighter Undine, but water in the Bay was low and the lighter ran aground after going but a few miles. There the General and his men stayed until sundown, August 1, when they were transferred to the Texas mainland in fishing boats that had gathered about the grounded lighter.

General Taylor and his men are believed to have camped beneath this massive live oak until his return to St. Joseph Island and his subsequent successful trip to Corpus Christi in September.

Steven Spielberg, your next movie awaits!!

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Richard Connelly
Contact: Richard Connelly