The Trail Tree Project has collected the data on thousands of Marker Trees located across the US and Canada in well over a decade. Analysis of those trees has shown that many of the trees can be categorized by typical characteristic shapes which may serve particular purposes. The purpose of every bent tree cannot be determined but interpreting some of the trees has begun. With extensive research, typical shape characteristics have been identified with a special purpose. These purposes include Marker trees for Trails, Water Sources, Shelter, Stream Crossing Points, Directional Pointer, Ceremonial Sites, Burial sites and more.
The Marker Trees described in this section are typical for most of the tribes in the US and Canada. However, some tribes such as the Utes, Comanche and others bent trees differently since they did not have hardwoods to bent but rather pines. They also used trees for food and medicine. Their trees are often categorized under the term Culturally Modified Trees (CMT). To learn more about these trees, we suggest you read the books authored by John Anderson. Information about the Comanche trees can be found in the book, Comanche Marker Trees of Texas by Steve Houser, Linda Pelon and Jimmy Arterberry.
Anatomy of a Bent Tree
The life of a tree is controlled by the cambium layer of the tree. This micro thin layer is located inside of the outer and inner bark of the tree. This is the layer where all the nutrients flow to keep the tree alive and growing. Each year, the tree adds one layer (ring) to its girth which is a means of aging the tree by counting the rings.
When the tree is bent at a young age, the cambium layer on the underside of the bent section is crushed. Likewise, the cambium layer on the upper side of the bent section is stretched. These impacts on the cambium layer cause the nutrients to have a harder time flowing unrestricted to the tree and thus, the tree growth is stunted. From that point on, the tree grows much slower and the tree rings are very close together. As a result, a bent tree can be half the diameter of a normal tree and still be the same age. Typically, Marker Trees can be two feet in diameter and be over 150 to 200 years old.
Trees annually grow out in girth and add height at the top of the tree. Thus, a bent tree will remain bent at the point where it was originally bent usually close to the ground so that it could be tied down to force the tree to take a particular shape. Laura Hubler drew a picture of how a typical Trail Tree would look from the bending based on what she was told be several tribal elders. Her diagram is shown to the right.
A Trail Tree that was located in the North Georgia Mountain area was unfortunately cut down by a homeowner who decided he needs it out of the way of his home construction. After it was cut down, we cut a cookie off the tree near the base to analyze a Marker Tree anatomy.