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Oldest Tree In The World - Great Basin Bristlecone Pine

Updated on November 14, 2015

Common Names: Great Basin Bristlecone Pine
Scientific: Pinus longaeva
Family: PINACEAE

The oldest tree in the world is 4,842 years of age in 2011. It's a Great Basin Bristlecone Pine (Pinus longaeva) that goes by the name of Methuselah. It's located 3,000m (9,800 ft) above sea level in Methuselah Grove in the White Mountains of east California.

The Methuselah tree is named after the biblical figure Methuselah. Methuselah is the oldest living person mentioned in the bible and apparently lived to the grand old age of 969 years. The Methuselah tree has already out-lived the biblical Methuselah at least five times over.

Methuselah was first discovered in 1957 by Edmund Schulman and Tom Harlanand. When it was discovered it was a slightly more youthful 4,789 years of age .

By counting back the years scientists estimate that Methuselah first sprouted from its seed in 2832 BC, several hundred years before the Egyptian pyramids were build. Methuselah is currently the oldest seed-grown (non-clonal), intact tree anywhere in the world. There are trees with older root systems, but their trunks are younger re-shoots that grew after the original trunk had been lost.

Another older Pinus longaeva called Prometheus once grew in Wheeler Park in Nevada. It was more than 4,844 years old when it was cut down in 1964 (perhaps a mistake or carelessness) by a scientist examining tree rings for a research project on the last mini ice age.

Although the exact location of Methuselah remains secret, it may be the bare and rotted tree to the right of this shot taken in Methuselah Grove.  It may not look like much   but when you're almost 5,000 years old you'll look rather haggard too
Although the exact location of Methuselah remains secret, it may be the bare and rotted tree to the right of this shot taken in Methuselah Grove. It may not look like much but when you're almost 5,000 years old you'll look rather haggard too | Source

Why do Great Basin Bristlecone Pines live to be the oldest trees on Earth?

The Great Basin Bristlecone Pine is one of the longest lived of all plant species, but what allows this species to survive for so long?

They grow in harsh, windy conditions high up on the mountain slopes in shallow, low-nutrient soil. The regions where they grow have an average annual rainfall of less than twelve inches. You'd think that these conditions would be the downfall of the trees growing in Methuselah Grove, however it's the very extremes they live in that provide them with an unique advantage to.

Nothing much else grows in these conditions (apart from a few other pines and some small shrubs) so there is little competition for water or nutrients. The cool mountain air also prevents rot-causing fungi from attacking them.

Because of the harsh conditions, many seeds will fail to germinate and as a result the trees end up having large spaces between them. This prevents the build up of pine needles on the ground which could provide fuel for wildfires.

Because access to resources in their environment is limited, they can keep each individual pine needle they produce for as long as 40 years before shedding them and growing new ones to replace them.

The wood of the Great Basin Bristlecone Pine is also extremely dense and full of resin which help to protect them against attack from boring insects and diseases.

Due to the environment they live in the growth of this pine is very slow, they may only add a single inch to their girth each century they live for. They are normally quite short and stunted, Methuselah itself is only 26 feet (8 metres) tall.

If it's a particularly bad year weather-wise they can become dormant and reawaken only when conditions improve.

If a large root dies due to disease or desiccation, the parts of the trunk and branches connected to the root also die leaving sections of the inner heartwood of the tree exposed. Many older trees in Methuselah Grove appear almost dead and some have just a single branch still alive and reproducing.

These pines are true masters of survival. The main reason why they live so long is that they're capable of holding on until the very end, even when faced with the most adverse of conditions.

If you're interested in more record breaking plants check out my other articles, this one for the largest flower in the world or this one for the largest leaf in the world.


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    • Simone Smith profile image

      Simone Haruko Smith 5 years ago from San Francisco

      This is positively fascinating! I had no idea our oldest tree was THAT old. It's amazing that a tree would survive so many changes in climate. Talk about tenacity!

    • Dolores Monet profile image

      Dolores Monet 5 years ago from East Coast, United States

      I'd love to see an old Bristlecone. Once went on a hike up in the Nevada mountains looking for some, but was afraid I'd get lost in the snow (it was 90 degrees down below). Anyway, I remember reading about the Prometheus tree and how they wanted to cut it down to see how old it was. The first man they got for the job refused to do it. He, whoever he is, is my hero. What a sad story that shows just how awful people can be.

    • aslaught profile image

      aslaught 5 years ago from Alabama

      Interesting@

    • Eiddwen profile image

      Eiddwen 5 years ago from Wales

      How interesting was this !!! Very !!!Amazing and one to vote up plus bookamrk.

      All your obvious hard work has certainly paid off and I now look forward to reading many more by you.

      Take care

      Eddy.