Is This 158-Year-Old Redwood the UK's Oldest Living Christmas Tree?

The Wrest Park Christmas tree past and present.
The Wrest Park Christmas Tree as it appeared in the June 1900 edition of Gardener's Chronicle (left). The tree as it stands today (right). (Image credit: English Heritage)

A cultural agency in the United Kingdom says it has discovered the oldest living Christmas tree in all of Britain. While the 158-year-old tree hasn't been used as a holiday decoration in decades, at one time it was uprooted every Christmas season and brought indoors, where it lit up the halls of an English mansion. The tree was then replanted after each holiday season.

In 1856, Thomas Philip de Grey had the tree planted on the grounds of his estate, Wrest Park, which is located in Bedfordshire, England. Recently, gardeners with English Heritage, the organization that now owns and operates this historic estate, unearthed the tree's festive history.

The gardeners found a reference to the now 100-foot-tall (30 meters) tree in the June 1900 edition of the Gardner's Chronicle periodical. According to the article, the tree was "planted by the late Mr. Snow in 1856, and must therefore have been one of the first introduced into this country." [White Christmas: Images of Stunning Snowy Landscapes]

The tree is a giant redwood (Sequoiadendron giganteum), indigenous to parts of the Sierra Nevada mountain range in California. In 1853, a British plant collector named William Lobb brought a few redwood seeds to England, where they were quickly snatched up by horticulturists who had heard of the adult redwood's magnificent proportions, according to the National Trust, a preservation and conservation society in the United Kingdom.

The gardeners at Wrest Park must have been among the lucky few to acquire one of these newly arrived redwood seeds, which they promptly planted in the estate's conservatory. Once the tree was large enough to serve as holiday décor, the gardeners began their annual tradition of hauling the sequoia over to the de Grey mansion.

Christmas trees were popularized in England during the reign of Queen Victoria (1837-1876), whose husband, Prince Albert, had enjoyed this tradition throughout his childhood in Germany.

"Christmas trees were the height of festive fashion by the 1850s after being adopted by the royal family as part of their celebrations," John Watkins, English Heritage's head of gardens and landscape, said in a statement.

The Christmas tree at Wrest Park is a rare, documented example of a tree that was decorated and replanted annually during the Victorian period," the statement said. "It was planted shortly after the trend for Christmas trees began, and we believe it is one of the earliest examples."

However, the folks at English Heritage can't be sure that the Wrest Park sequoia truly is the oldest Christmas tree in all the land. So, the organization is asking British citizens to come forward if they know of an even older tree.

But to commemorate the rediscovery of this historical tree, the English Heritage team is inviting Wrest Park visitors to help decorate the giant conifer in traditional style. In the olden days, families festooned their trees with candles, sweets and homemade decorations, according to Watkins. But since the tree is outdoors, visitors will use another traditional decoration, ribbons, to get the tree ready for the holidays.

Follow Elizabeth Palermo @techEpalermo. Follow Live Science @livescience, Facebook & Google+. Original article on Live Science.

Elizabeth Peterson

Elizabeth is a former Live Science associate editor and current director of audience development at the Chamber of Commerce. She graduated with a bachelor of arts degree from George Washington University. Elizabeth has traveled throughout the Americas, studying political systems and indigenous cultures and teaching English to students of all ages.