Trees are among the largest and heaviest living things on the planet.
They can grow to more than 380 feet tall and 140 feet wide, and some trees alive today are thousands of years old.
But how long does it take for a tree to grow that high and that wide?
It all starts with a seed.
Every tree, no matter how huge, grows from a seed. Well, almost every tree! I’ll come back to that. In most cases, the life of a tree begins when a seed finds just the right conditions for it to sprout. Before that happens, the seed is considered dormant; different types of seed have different requirements to break their dormancy.
Some seeds require a cold season before they germinate, or even more than one: this could take a year or more, depending on the weather. Others need warmth, or a particular moisture level. Certain seeds have a very hard coating that must be softened, nibbled, or chipped away at before they can sprout. It’s also not unusual for a seed to have more than one of these barriers to germination. In that case, several factors have to align to make everything just right for the birth of a new tree.
When a seed germinates, the tree’s first root, known as the radicle, grows through its shell and into the ground. This stabilizes the tree in its position and allows it to begin taking in water and nutrients. Once the root is established, the new tree will send up its first shoot and, once the shoot reaches the surface if the seed was underground, unfurl its first leaves. It happens in this order in the vast majority of trees, although very occasionally, the shoot comes before the root: in coconut trees, for example.
Seedlings and Saplings
Once the tree’s shoot is above ground, it’s called a seedling. Often this takes a bit of growing, but sometimes seeds germinate above ground: acorns are a great example of this. Seedlings are very delicate and at great risk from being eaten by animals. They’re also very susceptible to drought and extremes in temperature.
When a seedling grows to more than three feet tall, it becomes a sapling. Longer-lived tree species are saplings for much longer than those who shorter life spans: oak trees may be saplings for up to twenty years or more.
Saplings are defined by certain characteristics to differentiate them from seedlings and mature trees.
- Their trunks are flexible
- Their bark is much smoother than that of a mature tree
- They cannot yet produce seeds/fruit or flowers
Trees are defined as mature when they begin to produce fruit (seeds) and flowers, but this differs significantly among species. While a rowan tree can produce berries after about 15 years, the English oak usually needs about 40 years to being growing acorns and is considered young until it’s 100. In general, the shorter the life span of the tree, the less time is needed for it to produce fruit.
Each species of tree has its own lifespan. An oak tree will reach the height of its acorn productivity at around 80-120 years, but silver birch trees rarely live longer than 100 years. Shorter-lived tree species tend to grow much more quickly, but never attain the height or girth of their ancient relatives.
Trees that have grown well past maturity are referred to as ancient. Again, this varies hugely depending on the species. While rowan trees are ancient in the low hundreds of years, yew trees can reach thousands of years old before they attain ancient status.
This is why scientists look at a tree’s characteristics, rather than its chronological age, to decide whether or not it’s ancient. An ancient tree will have a small canopy for its size, and the tree might appear low and squat. It will have a wider trunk than others trees of its species, and the trunk may be hollow.
But How Long Will it Take for a Tree to Grow?
While the life stages of trees are standard throughout different species, the amount of time it takes for each species to reach each point is not. As a general rule, shorter-lived trees grow faster and longer-lived trees grow more slowly, but that’s not a hard and fast rule. Yew, one of the longest-lived and most ancient species of trees, can grow up to a foot per year.
Faster-growing trees (growth per year)
- Alder: 2 feet
- Rowan: 8-15 inches
- Hazel: 15-24 inches
- Common Beech: 1-2 feet
- Silver Birch: 15 inches
- Osier Willow: 39 inches (this is more of a bush than a tree)
- Poplar: up to 5 feet depending on the variety
Conditions for Tree Growth
Even within a particular tree species, individual trees’ rates of growth will vary depending on their situations. Climate, weather, soil type and conditions, density and type of predators: all of these factors can influence how quickly (or slowly) a tree grows.
Trees that grow in colder climates are known for growing more slowly than those that grow in warmer regions, although the Scots Pine, which is native to Northern Europe, can live 700 years and grows between 1-2 feet per year. So it really can vary.
There’s a lot of information around which states that it’s simply a matter of location and climate: that a tree in the tropics can reach maturity in a few decades, but a tree growing in the far north won’t mature for a few hundred years. This may be correct, but it’s not complete.
It implies that you could take the same species of tree, plant one in Jamaica and one in Sweden, and the tropical tree would mature at a significantly faster rate. It doesn’t quite work that way, not least because I’m not aware of any trees that will grow in both locations.
What it means is that, as mentioned above, tropical species of trees tend to mature more quickly than species that grow further north. While within each species, there will be some leeway with regard to the growth rate based on how favorable the location is for each tree, the general rules still apply. Wherever it’s planted, a holly tree probably won’t grow much more than 1 foot per year (give or take depending on the conditions), and it won’t like Jamaica much. Palm trees can grow up to 6 feet per year depending on the variety, but they tend not to be happy in Scandinavia.
And then there’s the Baobab
Baobab trees are native to Australia, Madagascar, India, and the African mainland. They can live to be 3000 years old or more, and while there’s little information available regarding their rate of growth, it’s generally thought to be relatively slow after their very early life. Although the baobab’s native countries are generally drier than the tropics, they are warm. Very warm! And there are even baobabs growing in the Caribbean from seeds that drifted across the ocean.
There are nine different species of Baobab (genus Adansonia), each of which has slightly different characteristics. They grow to 70 feet in height, although around 40-50 feet is more usual. But it’s their girth that’s truly impressive: 140 feet or more.
The Life and Growth of Trees
Beyond looking at average growth rates for each separate variety of tree, the is no absolute way to predict how long it will take for a tree to grow. The enormous variety of different types of tree combined with the unfathomable combination of growing conditions they face mean that, while there are some generalities, no tree will ever grow exactly as you expect.
I had a poplar tree that shot up tens of feet in just a few years: the arborist I called to trim it gently away from the telephone cable said that it had grown quickly even for a poplar. At the same time, I’ve seen hawthorn trees as natural bonsai in a rocky landscape: no more than 18 inches tall and stunted by the wind and landscape, but many decades old at least.
If you want to know how long it will take a specific type of tree to grow tall enough in your landscape to provide shade for your yard, or produce the delicious fruit you love, the best thing to do (as always) is plenty of research. Check out books (they do still exist) and lots of different websites, making sure as ever that you’re looking at credible sources: tree foundations and trusts, academic and government sites, and qualified arborist pages.
Watching a tree grow, for a little while or a long time, is a rewarding experience. They’re living beings just like we are; they grow, change, and develop. Make friends with a tree however old it is, and you’ll almost certainly have a friend for life.
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Kira Nash lives with her family in the sunny French countryside amidst bees and swallows. A writer, editor, and artist by trade, she also teaches creative meditation. She’s passionate about nature and ecology and tries to live as green a life as possible. In her spare time, she surfs, reads, and plays with her cats, although not usually all at once. She loves tea a little too much.