Bristlecone Pine

The Bristlecone pine is the oldest tree on earth, slow growing and beautiful even when barely a piece of the tree survives.

The Bristlecone Pine (Pinus aristata) is the oldest tree on earth.  The oldest tree is located in the Methusala Grove within the larger Schulman Grove at the Bristlecone Pine Forest in California.   The oldest tree is not specifically marked to help guard its safety, but there are a handful of contenders, and all are over 4000 years of age.  The oldest is 4600 years old.  That makes it a seedling almost 2600 years before the birth of Christ.   

What makes these trees live so very long?   Ironically, it is the fact they have a very tough life.  When the bristlecone pine is grown in good conditions in low elevation, it grows much more quickly and has a much shorter lifespan akin to other pines.  The Methusala Grove is located at over 8000′ of elevation in the high sierra in a low precipitation area.  Being in the desert and high on a mountain means there is little in the way of food or drink.  In times of severe drought, the tree can sacrifice large branches or trunks and reduce size of the growing plant.  That’s one reason the bare and beautiful trunks exist.

Even a dead tree may stand another 1000 years thanks to hard wood and a desert environment.

The extremely slow growth rate also makes for very dense, very hard wood.   A dead tree trunk may stand for 1000 years, though in our lower, wetter forests dead trees topple fairly quickly.  The slow growing wood is also infused with resin that helps make it impervious to insects.  The density helps it survive fires as well, so they have few real foes in nature.  Luckily, they don’t make great tall telephone poles or quick, simple lumber, so humans did not destroy the old growth forest in this case.

Young and old trees in this area. The old one has some limbs intact, but others bare where the tree reduced size in times of drought.

The Schulman Grove is named for Edmund Schulman, the fellow who promoted the science of examining tree rings.  Using a tiny hand drill, he covered the mountains and examined trees without the benefit of a well developed trail system.   Hiking at this elevation is tough.  Working and hiking without a trail on this steep terrain is simply difficult and dangerous.  Schulman could be described as either dedicated or maybe a bit crazy.   

It is too early to tell if the climate change is going to harm these trees.  They have withstood much.  In some areas, there are still baby trees starting up.   A seedling 5′ tall may be 50 years old, but in this world that is an infant. The largest Bristlecone, the Patriarch, is located in the Patriarch Grove.  It is much younger (a 2000 year old tree is juvenile here), and has had a bit more comfortable life so all the branches are still living.  

This is the Patriarch, the largest of all Bristlecone Pines. Growing in a more hospitable area, it has almost all healthy branches.

If you visit the high sierra of California, be sure to put these pines on your list.   The 4 mile hike at 8000′ plus is strenuous, mostly due to elevation.  Worth it.