The Oldest Trees on Earth

July 27, 2008

Bristlecone Pine; Inyo National Forest, 11,000 feet, White Mountains, California

The oldest living tree currently known is a Great Basin Bristlecone Pine growing in the White Mountains of eastern California.  This tree, which is over 4800 years old, was born at the dawn of human civilization and is still alive and vigorous today.  Mas and I went to visit the bristlecone pines, which grow between 9,000 and 11,500 feet (2743 m – 3505 m)  in the high mountains of eastern California, Nevada, and Utah.

What allows these amazing trees to live so long?  Of course, there is no single answer,  but a big factor is simply that bristlecone pines can thrive in conditions that would kill any other tree.

The bristlecones grow widely separated from each other, like a display of natural bonsai art, accented by small alpine plants. Because they grow in rocky, alkaline soil in a dry, cold  climate with an extremely short growing season,  they have no competition from other trees and shrubs for the little available water, and are also isolated from insects, fungus, and fire.

They can survive extensive damage to one  part of the tree.  Over time many parts of the tree will die – the soil slowly erodes away killing a root, lightning strikes the top, the climate warms allowing insects to attack a branch.   Each injury shows  itself in arresting visual patterns as the live veins twist around the dead wood.

The trees that grow the most slowly, in the harshest environments, are also the oldest.  The bristlecone’s wood is full of pitch, which protects it from insects and fungus.  The more slowly they grow the denser their wood is and the tougher they are. Even after death the tree will remain standing in the ground for thousands of years.

We returned home with deep admiration for these magnificent trees and their ability to survive thousands of years in such harsh conditions.  The bristlecone pines, in their lonely endurance and dignity, teach us the deep meaning of the art of bonsai and the eternal dance of life and death.


Click this picture for more photographs of the bristlecone pines and landscapes and wildflowers of the White Mountains.

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