The people have spoken (or voted online, rather) and the results of the 2015 European Tree of the Year competition are in: A mighty oak tree situated smack dab in the middle of a soccer pitch in the tiny town of Orissaare, Estonia, is Europe’s top tree, beating out leafy contenders from Belgium, Slovakia, France, Italy and nine other countries with a total of 59,836 votes. A 232-year-old sycamore from Hungary (53,487 votes) and a pollarded black poplar in northeastern Spain (13,951 votes) came in second and third place, respectively.

While all of these superlative plants are not doubt gorgeous specimens, it’s obvious, based on the sharp drop in online votes between the second and third place contenders, that Estonians and Hungarians really love trees.

This is the fifth year for European Tree of the Year (Hungary took top prize in 2012 and 2013), a competition that both the Guardian and the BBC liken to the Eurovision Song Contest but for trees. It’s worth noting that the small Baltic state of Estonia has won Eurovision once, in 2001, with this very special jam.

"The Great Plane of Tata," Hungary's entrant in the 2015 European Tree of the Year contest. (Photo: Platan Restaurant & Cafe)

This 250-year-old pollarded beauty from Aragon, Spain, took third place with nearly 14,000 votes. (Photo: Chuse Lois Parico)

As European Tree of the Year’s organizer, a Czech Republic-based consortium of community-based conservation groups from six different nations called the Environmental Partnership Association (EPA), the EU-co-funded contest is not an arboreal beauty pageant. “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,” the contest’s website states, noting that the overall aim of the competition is to “highlight the significance of old trees in the natural and cultural heritage that deserves our care and protection.”

As for this year’s winner, it’s been a singular part of the community since the early 1950s when a sporting field grew around the 150-year-old tree. It’s been a fixture in Orissaare ever since, and soccer players have learned to incorporate into their matches; they even use it to complete passes. Local legend has it that during the Soviet occupation of Estonia, Joseph Stalin’s henchmen tried to uproot the mighty oak via tractor but failed spectacularly — the tree actually managed to break the tractor’s cables.

This is the first year that Estonia has participated in the contest.

Oak tree in the middle of the soccer pitch? No sweat. (Photo: Elina Kalm)

On the eve of the announcement of 2015’s big winner, the Guardian caught up with Rob McBride, the famed British “tree hunter” and outspoken campaigner for the preservation of ancient trees. McBride traveled across Europe, paying visits to 11 of the 14 finalists in this year’s European Tree of the Year Contest. Although he (incorrectly) anticipated that Hungary would take the top spot yet again, he notes that the Estonian oak was his personal favorite of the bunch. He calls the tree "a symbol for the world to see how things can be better."

McBride also expressed his disappointment in the lack of online support for the contenders from Scotland, England and Wales.

Receiving just shy of 10,000 votes, the U.K. entrant was none other than Nottinghamshire’s revered Major Oak, a sprawling 800-year-old oak in the middle of Sherwood Forest that, according to local folklore, was used to provide cover for a certain on the lam outlaw named Robin Hood. Trees from Scotland and Wales, both Scots pines, garnered even less votes; the latter failed to crack 2,000.

The hollow trunk of this oak tree was spacious enough to provide shelter to a few Merry Men. (Photo: Nottinghamshire County Council)

“It’s a cultural difference. In eastern Europe they are still more connected to the soil,” McBride tells the Guardian of the year-after-year dominance displayed by Eastern European countries. (In addition to Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania have won in the past while Poland and the Czech Republic have traditionally been formidable contenders).

Situated on the Baltic Sea just south of Finland and west of Russia, it's not easy to categorize Estonia as an Eastern European country — most, including the UN, place it in Northern Europe. A highly developed nation that has more in common, economically at least, with Nordic powerhouses such as Sweden and Norway than fellow Baltic states Latvia and Lithuania, Estonia has an intimate relationship with trees — roughly half of the country is covered with dense forests. In 1441, the country introduced the world to the concept of the Christmas tree although Latvians would beg to differ.

Estonia is also a country with an incredibly intimate relationship with the Internet. The birthplace of Skype, tech-savvy Estonia is nearly completely blanketed with free Wi-Fi. One can pick up a signal pretty much anywhere in the country, including the aforementioned dense forests. With blistering broadband speed rates and one of the world's highest highest Internet user rates, Estonia became the first country to offer nationwide Internet voting in 2007.

Considering Estonia's deep, abiding love of trees (oaks in particular) and its reputation as one of the most wired countries on Earth, it only makes sense that it would take first place in a tree-centric online voting competition.

The 2015 European Tree of the Year awards ceremony is scheduled to take place in Brussels in April.

Via [The Guardian]

Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.

Estonian oak takes top prize in European Tree of the Year competition
First-time contender Estonia scores big (with no shade thrown) in the fifth annual contest.