Botanic Superlatives: The Oldest Tree

Botanic Superlatives: The Oldest Tree

February 4, 2011
Photo by: Clinton Steeds / Flickr

Nestled high in the White Mountains of California is a botanically sacred grove. Populated with primeval pines that sprouted more than forty centuries ago, this "Forest of Ancients" is not where trees go to die. It's where they live forever. 

Or, rather, they seem capable of living forever, say arborists of the bristlecone pines (Pinus longaeva), the oldest living things in the world. And oddly enough, this putative capacity for immortality is achieved by those pines whose environment is most severe. Unlike animals, trees derive longevity from stress. For the bristlecones, a rocky, alkaline, nutrient-poor soil is an elixir; they thrive in the Sierra Nevadas' deep snow, relentless sun, and scarce water. In this way, gleaning strength from adversity, each single year of steady survival seems to guarantee a hundred more, and the oldest have grown stronger by the century. On the question of a bristlecone's natural deterioration, a study by the Institute of Forest Genetics did not equivocate: "We conclude that the concept of senescence does not apply to these trees."

And amongst them, not surprisingly, lives the world's oldest individual tree. Methuselah is a stunning 4,741 years old, and still flourishing (slowly, at one diameter inch every hundred years) on its wind-blasted mountainous throne. Methuselah was named after the eponymous Biblical elder—this is perhaps an understatement, given that dendrochronologists, having sampled the pine's tree-rings, declared Methuselah's birthday to be around 2800 B.C.  

While Methuselah's exact location is a Forest Service secret, the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest is accessible to all explorers with the fortitude required to climb the steep dolomite slopes. Sit amidst the gnarled ancients and ponder your (im)mortality; it's a perfect mecca for the philosopher naturalist. 

Anna Laurent is a writer and producer of educational botanical media. Photographs from her forthcoming field guide to Los Angeles are available for exhibition and purchase at the author's shop