top of page

Ancients in Plain Sight

Updated: Jan 7

Actually a young but large coastal redwood, planted in 1928

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.

tree rings, by Glacier NPS

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.

Story time:

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.

The stump of WPN-114 or Prometheus (photo by Jrbouldin)

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!