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The Oldest Trees on Earth: The Bristlecone Pine

I was catching up with some friends the other day when we stumbled upon the topic of the oldest living things on the planet. Sure, there are microorganisms and bacteria said to be millions of years old, but we wanted to know what animals lived the longest, what plants, etc. It turns out there are a lot of ocean critters with long lifespans; sponges that live to be around 10,000 years, coral that are thousands of years old. There’s even a jellyfish said to be immortal (learn more about that here). It was all pretty interesting stuff, but we wanted to know more about plant-life, more specifically trees. I knew the redwood trees in California were around a thousand years old, but that’s nothing compared to the Bristlecone Pine.

photo by Wikimedia.

Bristlecone Pine is an umbrella term for three different species of pine and all three are among the longest living organisms on the planet; with the “Pinus longaeva” species living to be a whopping 4,000 to 5,000 years old. These species thrive in the harshest of conditions, growing mainly in high altitude regions in the western United States where poor rocky soil is the norm and rainfall is a rarity. In fact, in favorable conditions the Bristlecone pine will succumb to root rot and quickly die out. It seems these trees only tend to grow in arid climates where other plants have no chance of survival; and they tend to grow for thousands of years. They are a first-succession species, meaning they like to be the first to occupy open ground.

Because of all of these harsh living conditions, the Bristlecone grow extremely slow. So slow that the pine needles (in bundles of 5) can remain on the tree for upwards of 40 years. The trick to their survival is in their roots and the ”unfavorable” soil in which they live. Unlike most plants, the Bristlecone prefers dolomitic soil; alkaline, high in calcium and magnesium and low in phosphorus. Its root system is mainly composed of heavily branched shallow roots, while a few larger roots are formed for structural support. Their shallow roots and waxy needles make Bristlecones experts in water retention; a necessary skill-set for the trees survival. Their wood is extremely dense and filled with resin, making them practically resistant to insects, fungi and disease.

If you cut open a normal tree you will see its growth rings, with each ring representing one year of growth. But for the slow-growing Bristlecone, these tree rings are merely just a reference. The trees grow so slowly that rings don’t form every year, adding to the allure of the tree’s longevity. The oldest known Bristlecone boasts over 5,000 rings, with leading experts claiming that the tree could be up to nearly twice that in age. It’s actually still alive and well in the White Mountains of California and is the oldest known living tree on Earth. Check out the video below by Atlas Obscura for more information on the Bristlecone Pine:

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