The Mystery of the World's "Crooked" Forest

From Shakespeare’s A Midsummer’s Night Dream to the supernatural horror film, The Blair Witch Project (1999), forests have always held an air of mystery, enchantment, and sometimes even darkness. We venture into the woods not only to take in their beauty, but also to feel a stronger connection to nature; something about the wind in the trees seems to speak to larger truths about the world and our place in it.

Some forests hold more questions than answers, however. One case in point is Krzywy Las, the “Crooked Forest” of Poland. Nearly 400 of its pine trees have trunks bent at odd angles, and every single one of them points north. Strangest of all, no one knows why.

Theories Take Root

Oddly shaped pine trees in Crooked Forest at sunset.
Credit: Maciej Bledowski/ Shutterstock

There are theories to explain the phenomenon, of course. Some believe that particularly heavy snowfall weighed the trees down one season, though that hardly accounts for the uniformity of each and every trunk pointing in the same direction; others have suggested that farmers are responsible, as they believed the unique curvature of the trunks would make these pines better suited to furniture and ships, but no one is sure exactly what technique might have been employed to produce such an effect. The latter theory appears at first glance to be the most plausible, as only one section of the forest has c-shaped trunks and the trees surrounding it are all normal.

Whichever school of thought you subscribe to, it’s likely we’ll never know for sure. Though the trees were planted less than a century ago in the 1930s, the mystery persists in part because the nearby town of Gryfino was almost entirely destroyed during World War II. Conversely, this might also lend credence to the farmer theory: once war broke out, farmers would have had more urgent matters to attend to than making odd furniture. If people were indeed responsible for the curvature, they’re no longer around to take credit for their work.

Other Forests, Other Mysteries

Dancing forest in Curonian Spit National Park, located in Russia.
Credit: Henryk Sadura/ Shutterstock

Anyone hoping to solve this mystery can at least look to similar growths across the world, like the Native American marker trees or the circus trees in Gilroy, California — both of which were intentionally manipulated — or Kaliningrad Oblast in Russia, also known as the “Dancing Forest,” which is home to trunks that are contorted into spirals and rings — the cause of which is likewise unknown. (Does something about this region of the world lend itself to oddly-shaped trees?) Located on the Curonian Spit, the Dancing Forest is the closest analogue to Krzywy Las — and not just because of geography. It's also a relatively recent phenomenon, with some dating the unique trees back to 1961 and many attributing their strange shape to the paranormal.

As with Krzywy Las, however, the true cause may be more mundane. Rhyacionia buoliana, also known as the pine shoot moth, feeds on pine in its larva and caterpillar phases. It's theorized that caterpillars in the forest damaged the trees in their developmental phase by eating their apical buds, which stunted their growth and caused these off-kilter shapes.

Less mysterious but no less visually striking are the world’s many drunken forests, which live up to their names in ways both good and bad. Also called drunken trees and tilted trees, they stand at odd angles most often caused by the gradual thawing of permafrost and have seen their numbers increase due to climate change (Al Gore even mentions them in his documentary film An Inconvenient Truth). When ground that used to be permanently frozen begins to thaw and even melt, the trees growing from that soil no longer have a solid base. Alaska, Canada, and Russia are home to many of the world’s drunken forests; let’s hope it stays that way.

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