France’s Most Beautiful Trees

France’s Most Beautiful Trees

The winners of France’s annual Tree of the Year competition have been announced. We spoke to those who proudly nominated the winning arbres about what the trees – and the prize – mean to them and their community

We all have our favourite tree – a place of shade or shelter, a waymarker on a preferred walking route, or un arbre so beautiful we just stand and stare in admiration no matter which season. In France, they honour such natural wonders, not simply to lavish praise on decades, centuries even, of slow-grown elegance and beauty, but also to recognise the place that a tree has in the hearts and minds of those who live near it, who fondly visit it, or who protect and care for it.

Organised by the magazine Terre Sauvage and the National Forestry Office (ONF) since 2011, L’Arbre de l’Année (Tree of the Year) is more than just a ‘Miss France’ for fine-looking trees. Yes, there is an aesthetic element to the contest but the trees are also selected for their naturalist and historical characteristics, as well as for the links they have forged with local people over time.

Each year a jury selects a final shortlist of one candidate tree per region (including overseas territories) from a longlist of up to 150, each nominated locally by individuals or groups. (In the Île-de-France region, a jury formed by L’Agence des espaces verts (AEV) selects the tree that will represent their region.)

A Terre Sauvage photographer goes to each region to photograph the nominated trees and an online vote opens to the public; once counted and revealed each January, this provides the Public Prize, won in 2022 by a magnificent hêtre pleureur (weeping beech) in Cassel, Nord (Hauts-de-France). There were a total of 28,536 votes, with the Cassel cracker earning nearly 5,600 of them. At a prize-giving ceremony in Paris, two other main prizes were handed out: the Jury Award, granted by specialists in trees and nature from Terre Sauvage, ONF (Office National des Forêts), association A.R.B.R.E.S., and the LPO (League for the Protection of Birds); and the Coup de Coeur Prize, sponsored by ecological product company l’Arbre Vert. These prizes were won, respectively, by a beech in a canyon at Saint-Hubert, Moselle (Grand-Est) and le ficus de Jarry, a splendid weeping fig on the island of Guadeloupe looked after by young people on a work insertion programme.

The French public’s Tree of the Year then has the further honour of representing France for the following year’s European tree competition, whose goal is clear: “The purpose of the European Tree of the Year is to highlight the significance of old trees in the natural and cultural heritage that deserve our care and protection. Unlike other contests, the European Tree of the Year doesn’t focus on beauty, size or age but rather on the tree’s story and its connection to people. We are looking for trees that have become a part of the wider community. An exhibition will later present nominees in their photographed glory.”

France Today spoke with the passionate tree lovers and local representatives whose botanical beloveds emerged as the three category winners. Explore more, including images of all the French competition nominees, at (in French only).

The weeping beech of Cassel, in the Nord © Concours de l’Arbre de l’Année 2022

Name and position
Fabrice Duhoo, Deputy Mayor of Cassel for Economic Development, Culture and Environment.

Category winner
The public prize.

You must be very happy to have won? 
It brings great satisfaction because we mobilised collectively for more than a year to first nominate the beech tree to represent the Hauts-de-France region and, once nominated, to vote and have people vote.

Where can we find this splendid tree? 
This beech tree is located at the top of Mount Cassel, which is the highest mountain in Flanders. In the heart of the public garden, it is next to a windmill that used to produce flour.

Why did you choose this tree to compete? Why is it so special? 
The beech is ornamental and giant. It has been named by the people of Cassel ‘the beech of meetings’. It has witnessed the history of the town and the intimate history of the Casselois because family events are regularly immortalised on photos taken at the foot of the tree: bachelorette parties, weddings, first kisses, parties, family gatherings…

The local people must be proud of this tree? 
The people of Cassel come to gather there, to take a picture beneath it. Proof of their attachment to the beech tree is that the people of Cassel mobilised themselves so that it won the contest. They expressed themselves differently according to their skills and talents. Some of them have done documentary research. Others tried to capture its image through photography, painting, sculpture, video, time-lapse technique. The literary ones wrote poems, stories, tales. Others have walked the markets and the shopping malls to encourage people to vote.

Can you tell us a bit about the history of this tree?
We do not have any documents that allow us to date the planting of the beech tree precisely. However, research has allowed us to find the first thoughts of the elected officials about developing the public garden. They date from 1867. A photograph of Cassel notables taken at the foot of the beech tree allow us to date its planting to the 1880s.
It has been very lucky. In 1911, the mill less than a hundred metres from the beech tree burned down, but not the tree. During wartime bombing raids, neighbouring houses were destroyed but the beech tree survived.

What will the prize which you won mean for the city/region?
Inland Flanders is particularly dynamic. The unemployment rate is low. Apart from being able to work there, it is an area with an exceptional setting for those who love nature. Our ‘beech of meetings’ illustrates this well. Due to global warming, beech
trees are disappearing from France. Their image gives meaning to the efforts required to manage waste, reduce energy consumption and natural resources.

Can the public visit?
Yes. The public garden is open to all. You can’t pass by without noticing it, it is so majestic.

The canyon beech tree if Saint-Hubert © Concours de l’Arbre de l’Année 2022

Name and position
Delphine Stegre, president of the association Hêtre Vit Vent.

Category winner
Prize of the Jury, granted by specialists in trees and nature: Magazine Terre Sauvage, ONF (Office National des Forêts), association A.R.B.R.E.S., LPO (Ligue pour la Protection des Oiseaux).

You must be very happy to have won?
We are very happy, especially when we read the jury’s description: “In the small forest commune of Saint-Hubert, by chance on a walk, hides a treasure […] The jury’s choice fell on the canyon beech because beyond its aesthetic characteristics, the jury was touched by its resilience, its size and its root system embracing the rock, giving this canyon a phantasmagorical landscape.” So the professionals agree with us about the uniqueness, magic, unrealness even, of the place.

Where exactly is this magnificent tree?
Chemin des Gros Trembles, 57640 Saint-Hubert, Moselle (300m from the village). It is located on a hiking trail of La Communauté de Communes (CDC) Haut Chemin – Pays de Pange. The trail is known as ‘la Source Charlemagne’, since it also passes by this spring that the legend says was born thanks to the hoof of Charlemagne’s horse that scratched the ground.

Why did you choose this tree to compete? Why is it so special?
This tree is a common beech, Fagus Sylvatica being its Latin name. It is 25m tall, has a straight trunk and a harmonious crown. This tree is special because it has developed on top of a small canyon wall. Its base is therefore several metres above the ground, above our heads when we walk on the path. Part of its impressive root system is visible. As it is located at the top of the path, at the place where the rocky walls approach, it appears immediately in our field of vision and seems majestic.

But in reality, it is the whole of the small canyon that is impressive because many other trees (ash, beech, oak, cherry…) grow on top of the cliffs, on both sides of the path, creating a remarkable alley with an alignment of trees whose roots can be admired.

Can you tell us a little of its history?
It grew on crumbly rock which is not favourable to the growth of trees: its age is difficult to estimate – it is about 100 years old, maybe even 150.
As for the canyon, its precise history is not recorded, but it seems that at the base, it was a path dug in antiquity by the Celts. It was initially not very deep but water running down it during rainy periods carried pieces of rock and carved its way further, thus creating the cliffs seen today.

The local people must be proud of this tree?
Yes, because it is a symbol, it gives us a lesson of life: even when the context is unfavourable, if we fight to overcome obstacles, we can grow and succeed in becoming a beautiful ‘being’.

What does the prize you won mean for the city/region?
Our goals are to have the canyon classified as a ‘Remarkable Alley’ by the A.R.B.R.E.S. association, which grants this label allowing a better protection of this place and to make the Moselle department better through its natural heritage

Can the public visit it?
Yes, it is located on a public road and easily accessible.

The tree is located on the adapted military base of La Jaille, Guadeloupe © Aurélien Brusini

Name and position
Captain Laurine Crichton, communications officer, RSMA (Régiment du Service Militaire Adapté de la Guadeloupe).

Category winner
The jury’s Coup de Coeur.

You must be very happy to have won?
Yes, we are very happy to have won this prize, it is a great reward for our young volunteers who train daily with this tree and a recognition of the technical know-how of our trainers.

Where is the tree located?
This 42-year-old ficus is located on La Jaille camp of the Guadeloupe adapted military service regiment (RSMA), more precisely within its educational farm.

Why did you choose this tree to compete in the contest? Why is it so special?
We chose to present this tree because it is the most emblematic tree of the regiment. It is also the oldest tree at 42 years old, and has accompanied generations of young volunteers in the agricultural and environmental fields of the RSMA – it can be said that it is an intergenerational tree within the regiment. Our application was important to highlight the RSMA in Guadeloupe but also the adapted military service at a national level. Through participation in the competition, we are highlighting the beautiful mission of the SMA, which is to train and integrate young overseas people aged 18 to 25 into working life.

It must be a source of great local pride…
Our volunteer interns are proud of this tree and of the Coup de Coeur award. We have also received many messages of congratulations from our partners, the region, the ONF, the prefecture, Miss Guadeloupe, Miss France and others.

Tell us something of the tree’s history…
This tree has been accompanying young volunteers from Guadeloupe and Saint-Martin in their training within the Guadeloupe adapted military service regiment for over 40 years. Its aesthetics contribute to their development into solid, dynamic, supportive and generous men and women. The tree shelters a pond with about 20 ducks and geese and two Florida turtles.

The Guadeloupe Adapted Military Service Regiment is a socio-professional integration scheme that recruits around 600 young people per year aged 18 to 25 who are far from employment, preparing them for 30 professions with an integration rate of over 80%. This tree is located within the educational farm, which is currently being converted to organic farming, and which hosts the volunteer trainees in the life sciences section. This section trains trainees in different professions: multi-purpose agricultural worker (market gardening and animal husbandry), multi-purpose environmental worker (pruning) and multi-purpose environmental agent (landscaping).

What does the prize mean to your community?
It brings us pride and distinction for the beautiful archipelago that is Guadeloupe and for the Caribbean basin. It is also a testimony to the know-how of our trainers for more than 40 years. It brings young people closer to their natural heritage.

Can the public visit it?
Yes, people can come and see it during the RSMA open days on May 13 and 14, 2023

From France Today magazine

Lead photo credit : The 42 year-old ficus tree in Guadeloupe won the Coup de Coeur prize © Aurélien Brusini

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