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Hollywood awards season may be over, but the most important competition of the year has just announced its winner – and it looks like it came straight out of Tolkien’s Middle Earth.

The competition is for New Zealand’s Tree of the Year and the winner is a uniquely shaped northern rata tree, one of the tallest flowering trees in the country. Its towering height is impressive in itself, but the tree’s unusual twin trunks are separated in such a way that it looks as if it is walking – in high heels, no less. A real eye-catcher.

Although Tolkien does not mention that they wear stilettos, the unique appearance of the northern rats has been compared to Ents, the sentient tree-like creatures from Lord of the Rings and earned him the nickname “The Walking Tree”.

But while Ents protect the plants they resemble, the northern rat isn’t quite so kind to its arboreal counterparts. It begins life as an epiphyte, a type of plant that grows on the surface of another tree. Although it doesn’t get its nutrients from the host – that would make it a parasite – the northern rat’s roots grow toward the ground and eventually envelop its host.

This process may be responsible for the winner’s unusual forked trunk. “The host tree has now disappeared. Perhaps the tree was very, very large, or there was another tree that fell over and pushed against the host tree, and that’s why the roots split near the ground and gave it this walking appearance,” Brad Cadwallader of the New Zealand Arboricultural Association (NZ Arb), which organizes the competition, told Radio New Zealand.

Like Treebeard, the leader of the Ents in Tolkien’s novels, the Northern Rat Tree can reach an impressive age, living up to 1,000 years. Although it is not known exactly how old the winning tree is, it almost died 150 years ago when the area where it was found, near Karamea on the South Island, was cleared to make way for farmland.

“The farming family at the time obviously thought it was special because they left it behind,” Cadwallader said.

Even today, people seem to think it’s special, with the walking tree winning with 42 percent of the vote. However, the other finalists are also pretty striking, with many of them popular both for their looks and their connections to the locals.

“The Walking Tree is a prime example of the remarkable trees we are privileged to experience as New Zealanders,” said Richie Hill, president of NZ Arb, in a statement. “This award recognises the important role trees play in our communities. Not only do they enrich our local environments, but they also provide a sense of place for past, present and future generations.”

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