Methuselah - Ancient Bristlecone Pine
Methuselah Bristlecone Pine on White Mountains
Until the year 2013, Methuselah, an ancient Bristlecone pine, held the title of being the oldest living thing on Earth. Methuselah germinated before the Egyptian Pyramids were built. In 1957, samples were taken of Methuselah, dating its age as 4,789 years old. The estimated date of germination was 2832 BC. In 2013, an even older Bristlecone Pine was located within the same area and that tree has been dated as 5,064 years old.
Methuselah, still a marvel in its own right, stands proud at about 9,800 feet above sea level. "Methuselah Grove", which was named in honor of this grandfather tree, is where this tree and the other one grows. The grove is in the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, which is part of the Inyo National Forest, which includes the Sierra Nevada of California mountain range and the White Mountains of California and Nevada. This national forest is also home to Mount Whitney, the highest point of the Continental United States.
Topographic Relief map of Owens Valley and Owens River, the Sierra Nevada, and the White Mountains in California
This Bristlecone Pine Shows Both Live and Dead Sections, and Streaked Grain Colors on Broad Trunk
Bristlecone Pine Needles and Cones
The physical appearance of a bristlecone pine is stunning, whether it is full with new growth or in a dormant state. They are gnarled and look stunted, but are very hearty.
Streaks of grain in Reddish-brown (live), bright orange-yellow (live), and light tan (dead) give the trunk a colorful appearance. The deep fissures in the bark adds to the beauty of the trunk. Some of the oldest pines will have just a narrow streak of living tissue that will still produce new branches with leaves (needles) and cones. The height of the pine can be between 16 to 49 feet tall, with a trunk of 8 feet to a little over 11 feet in diameter.
The needles are stout with a blunt tip. The cones are from two to almost four inches in length and have an oval shape. When the cones open seeds are released immediately. The seeds (pine nuts) have been highly desired and prized as an important part of food resource to the Paiute Indian tribes of the area for generations. They still make yearly treks up to the mountains to gather the seeds.
The Clark's Nutcracker, a passerine bird in the family Corvidae, love to gather the seeds and bury them to supplement their winter food source. Some seeds are forgotten and can sprout into a new bristlecone pine, which will take many years to grow.
Bless This Little Bird for Burying Bristlecone Pine Seeds
Gnarled Wood of the Bristlecone Pine
Bristlecone Pines are Fascinating
Have you ever seen one up close -- in person?
The Root System
The root system is shallow, but provides good structural support for the bristlecone pine.
The tree is very drought tolerant because of the root system, which branches out. The waxy needles with their thick cuticles retain water, which helps the tree in dry periods. Even after a bristlecone pine dies, it can stand on the supportive root system for centuries.
The very dense wood of the tree contains a lot of resin, which is extremely important to the bristlecone pine obtaining such a long life and resistance to disease that attack other trees. The wood never rots, but erodes as stone does. The elements over time create some very amazing forms that add to the beauty of the older trees.
Humans are the Biggest Danger to Nature
There are many people who, for their own reasons, would like to take "just a little piece" of Methuselah as a keepsake.
It is imperative that Methuselah and other bristlecone pines will not be vandalized for the sake of fun, anger, collections or any other reason. These trees stand against all threats of Nature and their biggest danger is from humans.
For almost 5,000 years Methuselah has survived amid a forest that is inhabitable to many species of plant life.
The Great Basin Bristlecone Pine grows in the subalpine forests, on rocky surfaces of dolomite and granite. The specific location of Methuselah has not been made known to the general public in hopes to deter vandalism -- however, people will hike up to the area with the sole purpose of trying to find Methuselah. It is not marked in any way, yet still some have found it. Fortunately, there have not been any reports of damage to the tree, just photographs taken.
A fire in September of 2008 destroyed the Schulman Grove Visitor Center. The fire to the building was set by an arsonist who also set several Bristlecone pines on fire.
Prometheus, a bristlecone pine on Wheeler Peak, was possibly over 5,000 years old in 1964. In 1964, this ancient warrior was thoughtlessly cut down by a group of United States Forest Service personnel.
The death of Prometheus was because of a graduate student of the USFS who wanted to prove that some very old specimens of Bristlecone pine were on Wheeler Peak. He needed the information to include in his studies of the Little Ice Age. He took core samples from many of the trees. For some reason, still not clear because of the highly controversial reports, the man cut down Prometheus, leaving just a short stump that never again showed signs of life. The graduate student went on to become a "Professor Emeritus".
In areas such as the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, which are owned by the US federal government, the cutting or gathering of wood is strictly prohibited. The bristlecone pine is very slow to regenerate. Due to current climatic and environmental conditions the trees may not have sufficient needs to sustain their population. The International Union for Conservation of Nature has put the bristlecone pine on its red list, however, they are considered of Least Concern because the domains are remaining stable and not decreasing.
Even Mother Nature's Tears will not Bring Prometheus Back
For historical records and accuracy of what trees are the oldest on Earth, it is important to not confuse trees such as the bristlecone pine with clonal trees.
A clonal tree is one that grows on top of the previous tree which died, but the root system remains alive, producing an exact clone of the dead tree.
There is a Norway Spruce tree in Sweden that has been given the status of the oldest living clonal tree in the world. Its nickname is 'Old Tjikko', and the root system of the tree has been dated 9,550 years old, possibly older. It grows on Fulufjallet Mountain in Dalama Province, Sweden.
The visible part of Old Tjikko is 16 feet tall (5 metres) and is a few hundred years old. Since the root system stays healthy and strong for thousands of years, it continually produces an exact clone when a tree dies. Old Tjikko grew in a stubby shrub formation for thousands of years due to its harsh environment. When global warming began in the last century, the spruce grew into a taller, natural looking tree.
Old Tjikko is Oldest Clonal Tree in the World
Methuselah is a Hebrew Name
Methuselah was named after a biblical person who lived to the age of 969 years, according to the Hebrew bible. He was the son of Enoch and the grandfather of Noah. Methuselah died seven days before the Great Deluge which Noah prepared for.
Even though there have been differing theories and debates on the accuracy of "biblical years", the word 'Methuselah' is used to describe anything of great age.
The Spirit of Ancient Trees, Poem by Phyllis Doyle
I stand on the mountain high above
In a forest of ancient trees
Reach out to touch, to feel the love
With tears flowing fall on my knees
Beauty given to gods and goddesses
Cannot compare to these of old
For upon Earth they stand fearless
Against all elements, the heat, the cold
I feel your spirit, Grandfather
Hear your voice from ages ago
Of all life you have seen from here
Of death and birth as you still grow
Eagle flies gracefully above you
Honoring you with his keen eye
Tips his wings to send love true
Part of your world soaring in sky
Grateful I am I have seen you close
Great Spirit has blessed you so
Allowed me to be near this host
Of the mountains high and valleys low
© 2014 Phyllis Doyle Burns