You may have heard the quick story about the oldest tree, or maybe the oldest organism. But the details and the bigger story is so much juicer and fascinating, a quickie just doesn't do it justice. It’s hard to just break it down to simple facts, dates, sizes. And we also know now, that size really (no, for real, really) doesn’t matter here. And for those tall people in doubt- even a 7-foot tall person can’t fully tree-hug most of the trees I have in store for you. So take a knee next to this short(ish) botany-nerd, and listen to a tree-filled tale of the most ancient living beings we know.
It wasn't a dark and stormy night, but rather a frigid inky-black but clear morning day in late fall, before the snows began but with frost strong and ready the moment the sun is out of sight. This sunrise was a creamy sort of fuchsia pink and the defroster was blasting in my little white road trip champion, while I wound my way at a yawning 10 miles an hour for way too long behind a hulking logging truck that really shouldn't be on that narrow pass in the Sierra mountains. It was icy, and I was fine with going slow, but watching this truck cutting sharply into turns that took a few wheels into the ditch and almost a few trees was a bit much for me at 7am. But eventually I made it to the botanist's candy-store: a park high in the mountains holding many of the oldest living plants, nay life-forms, on Earth. I was ever so slightly excited, as you can imagine. And my camera was about to get a work-out!
Why was I positively vibrating with delight? I am NOT a morning person. But I was up at 5am for a loooong drive in the opposite direction of home in this leg of my California road-trip, to see a plant-bucket-list item. Ancient and glorious trees. And plenty of scientists, not just botanists, have been enthralled by the golden-oldies in wood for a while now.
Scientists, or more precisely- dendrologists- study the ages of trees typically using tree rings, aka dendrochronology. MOST precisely- dendrochronologists study the ages of trees through their wood's growth rings. [How many points is that one in Scrabble?] The word is made up of the Greek “dendros” meaning ‘tree’ and “chronos” meaning ‘time’, which our mythology and gaming nerds have probably heard before. It’s a very VERY detailed thing to study, usually needing a microscope to count the rings.
Quick high school science recap for any who forgot or were ‘too cool for school’ back then: Tree growth patterns (at least in temperate climates that have varying seasons) make visible rings in wood, because the wood cells change as environmental stress slows growth and they are produced outward horizontally from the center. During dry hot seasons, trees make smaller wood (xylem) cells so they cluster together in a darker band of growth, then they get lighter as the season shifts to lower-stress wetter weather and the cells are bigger. That creates the banding/ringing countable look.
Dendrology is not just about the trees. The history of the area they grow in is written within the wood of the trees, built into them like a family’s history shown in the home decor and knickknacks they collect over the years. Major droughts, fires, floods, and all sorts of environmental history is written in the rings, gaps and scars of wood. Dendrochronology isn’t perfect, of course. Sometimes trees make more (or less!) than one ring per year, for example. But it’s pretty good & unique growth habits can be corrected for when we know a lot about the species. And you don’t have to cut a tree down to count its rings now. [foreshadowing foreshadowing – stories to come…]
Dendrochronologists, foresters, hard-core tree huggers, etc. use a small core-extracting tool called an increment borer (like a soil corer) that you screw into a tree to extract a circular sample through the radius of the tree, aiming for the very center & heart wood. It leaves only a small hole, and is but a pin prick to a big sturdy tree, no worries. Scientists can also use historical records, extrapolate by models base on other aged trees, or can Carbon-14 date wood samples to get a tree’s age- all non-destructive.
With these methods we know that there are many trees well over 1,000 years old out there. In fact, there are 25 tree species that have been found to grow longer than 1,000 years. All of them have good defenses against fungi that are very commonly the demise of large old trees, either root or stem rot. And most are conifers, all with high content of aromatic/resinous compounds. Think thick pungent unreasonably sticky pine sap.
But who's the OLDEST, we ask. We always want to know the 'winner', right? Keep your shirt on...
The Pinus genus is among the oldest in the conifer group. Only fitting that it also contains some of the oldest growing trees. The well known bristlecone pine in fact is generally thought to be species with the oldest of all trees recorded, and the oldest of all still standing and alive. These bristlecones, aka Great Basin bristlecone, Pinus longaeva (meaning long lived, ancient), are only found in the high mountains of south east California into much of Nevada and Utah, in elevations between 6,000’ and 12,000’. They don’t get very tall, only about 53’, but can have fairly broad and multi-trunked girth.
And they are GORGEOUS.
Living works of art.
I was like a kid in a huggable very cold candy store walking among these beauties.
Some trees can be like a living painting with streaks of mottled grays and blacks gently spiraled upon the creamy tan of the bark with flashy deep rust-red streaks vertically around the trunks. It’s like it was kissed both lovingly and angrily by fire. But the charred-looking sections aren’t from fire damage.
That is just age.
They have been slowly roasted by time. Hot right?
I may need a moment here.
In 1964, a geography graduate student, Donald Currey, at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill got permission from US Forest Service to cut down a bristlecone pine tree in the Humbolt National Forest of the Nevada. He was studying the “Little Ice Age” and these trees were growing in a former glacial deposit. He selected several specimens to age, and the funny thing is- he was taking cores from the trees in the area. But, as some versions of the story go, he got his borer stuck in this ‘sample WPN-114, and had to cut it down to remove his borer & then age the tree. Or this particularly gnarled trunk of WPN-114 didn’t allow for a proper sampling by the borer. Either way, he needed to sample it by destructive means.
After he had a crew cut it down and got it into the lab, Currey began counting the rings. You know that feeling of a full body flush of embarrassment and dread, when you begin thinking you royally messed up? I bet this poor then-graduate student must have been flush with brewing panic, hints of sweat beads building all over, breaths caught by fear and disbelief. I can only imagine he blacked out for a few moments, then recounted again. He just found and killed the oldest recorded tree, a bristlecone pine of 4,844 years. Of course, at the time everyone just thought it was any regular tree, a renewable resource and no big deal to sacrifice for science. "Little did they know"… right? It would be a record blasting and huge discovery and help generations of scientists to come in multiple fields.
WP-114, or Prometheus as local mountaineers call it, was a seedling when the Egyptian pyramids were being built, about 4,500 years ago. Its grand parent trees probably saw the start of the North American Pleistocene glaciers receding 15,000 years ago. Prometheus and its ancient fellows established around 2,500 BCE.
Just chew on that for a moment. Empires have fallen since then.
The comings and goings of soft-bodied busy humans near by must seem like blurred scurrying of frantic otherworldly beings to these benign slow-growing wood-encapsulated ancients. They may not have felt the hugs, but for the briefest of warm tingles.
But I will treasure those moments.
That 4,844 year old bristlecone pine by the way, is preserved at the Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research in Tuscon, AZ as a very tangible message to use more conservative methods of aging trees. Save the saws for already fallen trees. And the very well-meaning Donald Currey was unfortunately and unfairly scrutinized and harassed for a long while but still went on to become a great professor of geography at the University of Utah. Because of Professor Currey’s discovery, the once unremarked bristlecone pine is protected on all federal lands. The Humbolt National Forest was also pushed through as protected finally as a National Park, creating the Great Basin National Park in 1986. So its martyring is protecting its whole 77,000 acre area now. Thank you Dr. Currey!
Several bristlecone pines have now been dated as the top oldest since Currey's Prometheus WP-114 tree. I was able to find the Methuselah tree in the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest’s Shulman Grove, which is no longer marked because tourists were taking trophies from it. Not cool people. That’s like taking a fingernail off your favorite athlete. Methuselah has been dated to 4,854 years old (in 2022), slightly older than Currey’s Prometheus tree (4,844) and a good size when the Egyptians started building the famous pyramids of Giza. There’s another bristlecone that was aged even older and it’s location kept secret, so it’s often called Harlan’s secret tree for the researcher who dated it to 5,070 years old (in 2022). It was first found by researcher named Schulman in the 1950s somewhere in the White Mountains, same area where the others were found, but only finally dated in 2012.
There's something very key to making ancient trees- the forests they inhabit have to also last a long time. The very oldest trees are found in the same sorts of dry harsh habitats, which forces them to grow very slowly- slow & sturdy. Trees in general have existed since the Devonian 385 million years ago. Europe’s oldest trees are about 1,075 years, being Bosnian pines in Greece. There is an unofficially dated yew in a churchyard in Wales that may be about 4,000 years old, possibly having sprouted during Britain’s Bronze Age. I would like to talk to that tree, I love the Bronze Age.
No matter the tree’s ability, they need the chance to reach a super ripe old age, by either protection (like those in European church yards or cemeteries, or in very isolated areas like the high elevation bristlecones or get lucky in stands that had not been destroyed by fire, wind, logging, storms or anything else for thousands of years. The worlds’ oldest trees are some combination of hardy, isolated, protected, and lucky. Hardy is really the base requirement.
Another fancy trait to ancient trees is something special to plants and animals could never do. They compartmentalize their life. Ever see a tree that looked half-dead, but the other half looked very healthy? Bristlecones can have a strip of only 2 inches of living bark supported by 1 primary root but perfectly healthy branches up top.
These are called 'strip-bark' trees, where most of the circumference of the trunk is dead with only strips of living tissue from roots to leaves. Usually its the leeward side of the tree or trunks or branches that are protected more from the elements and the windward sides get striped and eroded by winds and sand and ice. This adaptation helps these trees focus growth in a smaller area and have healthier growth rings in those strips. It also creates the beautiful painted look of different colored ribbons up the bristlecone pines that survive the struggles of a harsh area. Trees in more pampered spots don't have the same look.
Time isn’t the only sculptor of these statues of living wood. They can survive cold to -34°C (more ouch than burr!). Their harsh climate of cold, winds, ice, and water-stress create twisted and bent specimens of gnarled art. The word of the day is: krummholz. Meaning “knee timber” in German. This is the term for trees at the tippy top of the tree-line facing such harsh conditions they are usually stunted in height and often bent into wild directions and shapes. Nature makes it’s own crazy looking bonsai.
Bristlecones have reddish brown bark that ages to gray with ambling irregular branches and the classic pine-needles but short and in tight clusters usually of five. The leaves are even long-lived, from 10 to about 45 years, which is also among the oldest for trees. Even their seed cones, aka female, take two years to mature once pollinated and look like a pretty typical small-medium pine cone, about 2 to 4 inches. And like many long-lived trees, the bristlecone pine grows very slowly. But they grow actually very very very slowly. They can take decades to become the height of a person. And their slow growth creates such dense wood that even insects generally can’t infest them.
Bristlecone pine wood is also long lasting. They have staying power both alive & dead. Their wood lasts so long that some logs have been on the ground for 10,000 years. The habitat is too harsh for the wood to really decay- it erodes, like rock against the elements.
It's like they became fossils while alive.
The soil in the area is pretty nutrient poor as you can imagine with so little break down of organic matter. These ancient trees are basically growing out of rock.
But don't go thinking bristlecones (Pinus longaeva) are the end-all of ancient trees. While they are amazing and gorgeous and endearing and huggable, they aren't the only ones.
Honorables to Mention:
“The Senator” – pond cypress (Taxodium ascendens) was in Longwood, Florida- killed by vandal smoker
- 3,500 years old. Reached 165’ tall and 118’ in diameter
unnamed – Patagoian cypress (also called austral redwood) (Fitzroya cupressoides) in Argentina- dead
- 3620 years old dead tree.
"Gran Abuelo” – Patagonian cypress (Fitzroya cupressoides) in Alerce Costero National Park, Chile
- 3,650 years old. Reaching 196’ tall and 13’ in diameter. Meaning “great grandfather”, oldest tree known in South America & an endangered species. New study suggests could be way older, TBC.
“Sarv-e Abarkuh” – Mediterranean/Persian cypress (Cupressus sempervirens) in Abarkuh, Yazd, Iran
- 4,030 years old. Reaching 82’ tall and 60’ diameter
Llangernyw yew – common yew (Taxus baccata) in Conwy, Wales
- 4,000-5,000 years old- they are hard to date. Reaching 43’ tall with split trunk. Associated with a spirit/”recording angel” that each Halloween foretells who will die the next year.
+ Unknown age but surely extra old:
Fortingall Yew (Taxus baccata)- can’t be accurately aged since the core, heartwood, had decayed hundreds of years ago, splitting the tree into multiple separate trunks that were once sections of the outer wood and are thus clones of the original ‘whole’ tree. It or 'they' still stand in Scotland.
Speaking of clones, that's another way to achieve extra long life.
Many trees reproduce vegetatively, meaning from stem or root sprouts (not seeds). And these can create their own forests in fact, made of many trunks from the same vegetatively prolific parent-tree and all genetically identical and likely connected individuals. It is thought that many giant redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens- which means "forever alive") came from the roots of ancient predecessors. Aspens are also a famous clonal ancient organism. They very often spring up from roots of parent trees and those in the know may have heard of the amazing oldest recorded living thing on Earth- Pando. Pando, meaning "trembling giant", is a clone forest of more than 40,000 aspen (Populus tremuloides) in Fishlake National Forest in Utah. The colony is estimated to have been alive for 80,000 years. Aspens often form clonal forests of thousands of individuals over thousands of years, yet individual stems only live a couple hundred (but could have make a few hundred clones during that time). Brings new meaning to that saying- see the forest through the trees.
Scientists of Umeå University in Sweden in 2008 during a tree census, stumbled upon a Norway spruce (Picea abies) that is now the oldest single single trunk of a previous colony of clones. This last remaining tree of a 9,550 year old Norway spruce colony is named "Old Tjikko" and is much like the aspens of Pando, a younger tree growing from a very old root system. But it's the solo survivor after over nine thousand years, originally sprouting at the end of the last ice age, before humans recorded written history, and the trees would have been low krummholz tree when humans were learning to plow fields for farming. When the planet began to warm more, it grew into a more normal tree form. It's root was aged by carbon-14 dating and is only 16' tall and actually only a few hundred years old as a trunk.
But these are young trunks on very old roots. We have recent news about a new oldest single tree.
Gran Abuelo: the world’s new oldest tree (maybe?)
Meet "Gran Abuelo" (great grandpa), also called Alerce Milenario, is a Patagonian cypress (Fitzroya cupressoides) in Alerce Costero National Park, Chile.
Initial dating had it at 3,650 years and still among top five of the ancients, but a new study by Chilean environmental scientist Johnathan Barichivich suggests it could be as old as 5,484 years. The results aren’t officially published yet, but it looks likely that this is now the new oldest recorded single tree alive. It would be older than the oldest “secret” bristlecone pine by over 400 years. It survived fires and logging in the area (who knows if there would have been even older) and is a huge specimen (200’ tall and >13’ diameter) in the park where it’s found and luckily protected. The Patagonian cypress is known to be another slow grower like bristlecone pines, and are a protected species now in Chile.
I thoroughly enjoyed my own visit to the ancient bristlecone pines in California's White Mountians and my nerding exploration of ancient trees around the world. I hope you have enjoyed this sampling as well and maybe have a spark of desire to carefully hug an ancient of your own, and leave that old wood where it lies, and take only a LOT of photos.