Plants, Stone, California Landscapes



Bristlecone Pine

Bristlecone Pine

While I was out on the east side, I visited the Schulman Grove of Bristlecone Pines in the White Mountains. Bristlecone Pines are the famous “oldest trees in the world,” and, checking them out in person, I found they have a suitably amazing presence. They grow on a very dry, barren mountainside, sometimes with other plants — mountain mahogany, sage (Salvia and Artemisia), penstemon, thistle, paintbrush, lupine — but with the oldest ones growing in pure stands of gnarled, low-growing, ancient trees. There is a four mile loop trail that passes through the grove that has the Methuselah Tree, the oldest tree on earth at almost 5,000 years old, though it’s not disclosed which one is the actual Methusaleh, the forest service keeps its identity secret and doesn’t let anyone publish any photos of it. (There was an older one, Prometheus, but it was cut down by a scientist, and a NOVA program about the bristlecones claims that someone has found another one older than Methusaleh; the NOVA link has some cool interactive photos.) They are concerned that people would walk close to it and cause erosion, risking it health as erosion is apparently what eventually finishes these trees. They survive lightning strikes, pests, drought, etc., but in 5,000 years on the side of a dry, sandy mountainside, they’re going to see some serious erosion. Living 5,000 years, they’re not even on tree time, they’re starting to be on geologic time.

The most striking feature is how much dead wood they have. One 4,000 year old tree has a four foot diameter trunk with only a ten inch wide strip of living wood. And even after the wood dies, it doesn’t rot. Scientists have found wood that is 9,000 years old; they used the tree rings on these trees to calibrate the process of carbon dating, they are literally the standard by which we determine how old things are. Which makes sense, as there is something almost archaeological about the grove. Serious patience and endurance; these trees abide.

Bristlecone Pine

Bristlecone Pine

Bristlecone Forest

Bristlecone Forest

There’s a nice photo from the Schulman grove in photographer Rachel Sussman’s project the oldest living things in the world. She also has photos of redwoods, alerces, a 400,000 year old bacteria, an “underground forest,” and clonal trees like aspens where the genetic material is 80,000 years old. Bristlecone and redwood photos are always cool, but I think the best photos in the series are of the plants I’ve never heard of, the ones that are not visually impressive but have been unobtrusively living for thousands of years. (Hat tip: Studio G)

Another photo of a bristlecone and a few other old trees is at the blog for friendsoftrees.org.

— Somewhat off topic, but I feel like bookmarking the link, a slideshow of the world’s most famous trees includes a bristlecone.


7 Responses to “Bristlecones”

  1. October 24th, 2009 at 9:32 pm

    lostlandscape(James) says:

    I love these groves. It’s so weird that a tree that grows like a weed and dies after 200 years low on the slopes would live so long when stressed on the mountaintops. At least there, there isn’t a pile of competition. Thanks for the link to Rachel Sussman’s project. I’d heard of the local desert creosote bushes that are supposed to be as old as the human habitation of North America, but it was interesting to see the photo. I think those definitely fall in the category you mention of being unremarkable in appearance, hardly different from the bushes around them. A bristlecone looks old, but these are a total surprise.

  2. October 24th, 2009 at 9:51 pm

    ryan says:

    I quickly looked up if I could plant a tree at my house and have it live 5,000 years. Not unless I move to a mountain in the Great Basin. I’m fascinated that the 6 week growing cycle somehow results in such longevity.
    I thought those creosote rings were cool too.

  3. October 25th, 2009 at 7:15 am

    buenorific says:

    I’ve planted bristlecones in gardens for clients when I was n Santa Fe and the quickest way to kill them is with kindness. When they start looking brown & stressed it means the soil is too rich or the water too generous! Talk about thriving on neglect.

  4. October 25th, 2009 at 6:05 pm

    ryan says:

    Looking at the chalky, sandy soil they were growing on, it seemed like they wouldn’t do well on Bay Area clay, as if they’d probably act like monterey pines. It would be fun to plant one if I lived somewhere they could grow.

  5. October 25th, 2009 at 6:29 pm

    Brad B says:

    Great post. Thanks for the links as well. The Rachel Sussman photos are fascinating, though it looks like the bristlecones have a lot of stiff competition for oldest living thing. Since they are including clonal plants I wonder how old some of the redwood clone’s genetic material is.

  6. October 25th, 2009 at 7:11 pm

    ryan says:

    Thanks. I don’t know about non-Californian plants having a claim at being oldest in the world — I like the idea that we have the oldest, the tallest, the biggest, and the bestest…uh, wait, does that sound obnoxious? — but it’s really interesting. You reminded me that I meant to put “oldest tree in the world” in quotes.

  7. October 28th, 2009 at 11:18 pm

    chuck b. says:

    I need to see these trees. We spent a whole lecture talking about them in an ecology class I took some years ago. I was esp fascinated about the short growth cycle. This is common in extreme environments, e.g., high latitudes or altitudes.

    I imagine Pinus longaeva seeds are hard to come by, but I’ve never looked for them.

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