Maybe you’ve seen the tabloid headlines: “Tree Sex Man Ordered to Leave Park.” “I’m in Love With a Tree — It’s the Best Sex I’ve Ever Had!”

Dendrophilia, or arborphilia, literally means love of trees. Most corners of the internet define it to go beyond run-of-the-mill tree hugging and into the realm of sexual attraction and/or romantic love. Based on the mostly dubious sources for evidence of the perversion, it appears to live bigger in our imaginations than in the actual world.

But like most myths, this one appears to be born of a kernel of truth. A Google Scholar search turns up little, but Mark Griffiths, a UK professor at Nottingham Trent University who studied gambling addiction and other extreme behaviors, gives a decent overview of dendrophilia on his blog. He notes that Brenda Love mentions dendrophilia in her Encyclopedia of Unusual Sex Practices, and suggests that in some ancient cultures trees were symbols of fertility, and men went to the forests on holy days to ejculate on them.

He also quotes Thomas Gregor’s 1985 book, Anxious Pleasures: the Sexual Lives Of An Amazonian People:

“I have been able to find only two other stories of masturbation, and in both, men are the principal actors. In one tale we learn of a man who found a remarkably gratifying hole in a tree, which he began to use to the exclusion of his wife and girlfriends. In the second story, a man made an artificial vagina of leaves to which he became similarly attached. In both myths, the culprits were seen by other villagers who hacked away the hole with an axe and tore the leaf vagina to shreds. In both stories, the masturbators behaved as if their leafy companions had been real women. They wailed for the deceased plants, cut their hair short, and took off their belts as a symbol of mourning.”

If you’re feeling a certain communion with the men in these stories, there’s a Livejournal support group with your name on it. It’s impossible to know if its members are sincere or sarcastic, although in either case they appear to have found something in each other. A poster who introduces herself as Colleen adds a few photos of trees just being trees, and hides them under a “NSFW?” click-through warning. “I have a ton of tree pictures, just don’t want to…overwhelm…you all,” she writes.

Another member asks a question of moral concern: “In my deep, deep contemplations of issues, I am wondering, would it be considered an abusive relationship to use sandpaper or other means to smooth the tree to avoid splinters?”

There aren’t too many modern popular cultural references to tree-love. There’s the infamous tree rape scene from Evil Dead, although it must be said that a tree coming to life and raping a woman has very little do with dendrophilia, which involves humans choosing to form romantic and sexual bonds with trees and other plants.

A better example is this music video by UK band Metronomy, featuring the love story between a man and the partner he fashions from tree litter on the forest floor.

Writer Dani Burlison investigates her own love of trees in an essay for McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. She describes her young life of environmental activism, spurred by a deep love for the redwood forests of California:

“But still, I could never support how some people took their love of trees to the next level. I’m not just referring to tree sitters ascending great heights into redwood canopies or the aforementioned inter species hugging bonanzas. I’m talking about people who have sexual relations with trees. It’s been assumed that some of the overly open-minded and feral eco-erotics I often heard tales of were simply into objectum sexuality, were lonely, took too much acid and never fully returned to the reality or were picking up on some serious mojo from the redwoods that I was just too spiritually stunted to receive. Regardless of the assorted motivating factors that shoved them into the tangled branches of desire, some people exposed their genitals to the unforgiving roughness of cold, scraggy bark.”

Later in life, though, she starts to come around to the idea of forming a romantic partnership with a tree, and decides to give it her best effort. It’s the sycamore outside her bedroom she chooses for the experiment, although she later regrets not picking the redwood beyond the fence. The relationship doesn’t last.

“Looking back, I knew that I should have followed my friend’s advice when he suggested: Go big, Dani. Go redwood. The silent treatment, the emotional unavailability, I deserved it all for settling for something convenient, something other than what I really desired, a sycamore instead of a redwood. And maybe the lack of sex hurt him as much as his silence hurt me. I should have sanded him, prepared him for physical love instead of shying away from splinters and demanding conversation when he wanted quiet time alone with me, for us to just hole one another.”

Photos via Matt Cardy/Getty Images