El Arbol del Tule

Tule tree canopy

Tule tree limbs

Tule tree burl

My brother Mark, a professor of geography at Delta State University in Mississippi, recently returned from a two-week trip to the state of Oaxaca, Mexico, where he was surveying cycad populations with some Mexican colleagues. While there, he took the opportunity to visit the world-famous Arbol del Tule (pronounced too-lay), in the small town of Santa Maria del Tule. I prevailed upon him to share some of his photos of the Tule tree with Via Negativa readers. Please click on the images to see larger versions.

El Arbol del Tule

The tree is an ahuehuete (ah-way-way-tay), known in English as Montezuma cypress or Mexican cypress — Taxodium mucronatum. Genetic tests have shown that it is a single genetic individual, not the fused trunks of several trees as some had thought. Tule is a kind of reed; the town was built on the site of a former marsh. According to the Gymnosperm database,

“Ahuehuete” is a Nahuatl phrase that means “old man of the water,” a fit name for a tree that is always associated with swamps, streams or springs (Bautista 2005). The tree is sometimes also called Ciprés de los Panatanos (Cypress of the Marshes).

ahuehuetes in a stream

The ahuehuete is most often found growing directly in the current of streams and rivers in Mexico. It’s a close relative of baldcypress (Taxodium distichum), the most visible difference being the virtual absence of cypress knees. Like the baldcypress, the Mexican cypress is deciduous, dropping its needles in the dry season.

Santa Maria del Tule

Santa Maria del Tule is a small valley town a few miles east of Oaxaca City. It is easily accessible by local bus. The Arbol del Tule (l) dwarfs the church; a somewhat smaller ahuehuete (r) grows to the right of the church.

Tule tree foliage

Tule tree with tourists

Church at Santa Maria del Tule

The town square is dominated by formal gardens, which include some topiary. One gets the impression from these photos of a rage for order — a natural reaction, perhaps, to the otherwise overwhelming wild presence of the great tree. However, this species has been a literal building-block of civilization in Mexico for a very long time. The Aztecs and other Mexica peoples built cities on shallow lakes by first planting palisades of ahuehuetes, then filling the areas they enclosed with rocks and soil. Tenochtitlan itself was built in this manner, which means that one of the largest cities in the world — Mexico City — had arboreal grandparents, whose bones might still lie buried somewhere beneath it.

Tule tree plaque

Arbol del Tule
Common name: Ahuehuete or Sabino
Family: Taxodiaceae
Genus: Taxodium
Age: More than 2000 years
Girth (circumference): 58 meters
Height: 42 meters
Diameter: 14.05 meters
Volume: 816,829 cubic meters
Weight: 636.107 tons
Source: SEDAF
Town council 1996-98 [those who erected this plaque]

The age and even the exact size of the Tule tree are difficult to determine. The plaque at its base is unlikely to have the last word.

little tree at Tule

This is the smaller tree on the other side of the church, which would be considered remarkable anywhere else. As the aforelinked Gymnosperm database page puts it,

The Tule tree itself grows in a neighborhood that also holds six or seven other very large trees — one tends not to notice them, though, because most are behind walls and not publicly accessible, and because despite their large size (over 300 cm in diameter) they pale into insignificance beside the Tule tree itself.

Tule tree poem by Juan de Dios Peza

Regular readers know of my interest in public poetry. I was happy to see Mark’s photo of an official Tule tree poem, especially since the poem, by Juan de Dios Peza, takes a decidedly via negativistic approach. Here’s the text, along with my quick-and-dirty translation.

El Ahuehuete de Santa Maria del Tule

¡Con qué pompa a la vista
te presentas titan de estas
risueñas soledades!
Si sacuden tu copa las
tormentas sollozan en
las ramas las edades.
¿Qué te puedo decir?
Inspiras tanto que a mí
me basta recoger tu
nombre y darte mi mutismo
como canto ¡Junto a un
arbol así nada es
el nombre!

Juan de Dios Peza
5 June 1994

The Ahuehuete of Santa Maria del Tule

How grand and stately
the sight of you, colossus
of these inviting solitudes!
When storms rock
your crown, all the ages
moan in your branches.
What could I possibly say to you?
You inspire me so much,
I’d rather withdraw your name
and give you instead my silence
in the form of a song: Next to
a tree like this, a name
means nothing!

Juan de Dios Peza
5 June 1994

Mark Bonta prays to the Tule tree

Mark isn’t a terribly religious guy, but he said he found it strange that people would go into the church to worship with such a tree looming right outside. Here he is, as photographed by one of his colleagues, offering a prayer to the Arbol del Tule.


Be sure to check out the latest Festival of the Trees at Fox Haven Journal. The September 1 edition of the blog carnival will be hosted by the Spain-based blog Exploring the World of Trees; email links to Dan (treespecies AT gmail DOT com) by August 29.

13 Replies to “El Arbol del Tule”

  1. What an awe-inspiring being that tree is!

    The sense of reverence in otherwise not religiously inclined people reminds me a little of the kauri trees we saw in New Zealand.

  2. That’s so cool your brother got out to see the arbol del Tule – I’d heard of it. I’ve never been to Oaxaca – maybe another trip, and the tree would have to be on the itinerary. I love the poem, too.

    The tree reminds me of the olive trees at Tzintzuntzan, but those were only 500 years old (and much smaller of course)! And planted by Spanish missionaries, not native to the area.

  3. Thanks for the commments.

    Lucy – Have you posted about those trees? Sounds like a good addition to the FOTT.

    leslee – Oaxaca is high on my own list, too. Mark says they’re extremely proud of their culinary tradition – even the smallest, cheapest restaurants serve fantastic food.

  4. Great Tree! great post! y que poesia!

    I think these are the first photos I’ve seen of the Tule without banners and guadalupes hung all over it. thanks

    (and yes, amen on Oaxacan food, I’ve never had better. anywhere.)

  5. Hey, glad you liked the post. I did see a pretty good flickr set on the Tule tree a while back; my frustration with that and the accompanying webpage was the lack of real natural history information.

    I should plan a culinary tour of Mexico. I’m a budget traveler, but Mark keeps talking about how great the Mexican busses are – it sounds way better than Greyhound.

  6. ‘Have you posted about those trees? Sounds like a good addition to the FOTT.’

    They were what got me blogging, but no not directly. I guest posted about them at rr’s nearly two year ago because I like the idea of FOTT so much, and she nagged me to get my own! So that was why I gave my blog a tree name, but now I don’t contribute as much as I should… I’ll try to change that.

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