The bristlecone pines: longevity and threats

The secrets of their longevity and the dangers that threaten them

by Lorenzo Ciotti
The bristlecone pines: longevity and threats

The bristlecone pines are a taxonomic grouping of pines of the subgenus Ducampopinus. These trees are of considerable interest for dendrochronology and ecology. The oldest fossil specimens have been discovered in the Thunder Mountains (46 million years), Nevada (42 million years), New Mexico (32 million years) and Colorado (27 million years).

The plant is very slow to grow, a few millimeters per decade. It is likely that in nature there are specimens that exceed 5,000 years, but the exact determinations are made difficult by the tendency of these species to lose the outer layers of the stem.

For a reliable dating it is in fact necessary that the plant retain traces of bark or of the promissory ring. Until the 1950s, no one imagined that a tree could live for more than 4000 years. Until Schulman, in 1953, decided to listen to the advice of a ranger of the Inyo National Forest, and ventured into the White Mountains in search of trees that could provide data for his research, old enough to have stored, over the centuries, useful information for climate studies.

During the first exploration, Schulman climbed to over 3,000 meters, and analyzing a sample of a pine with bristly cones, he found it older than 1,500 years and therefore decided to call it Patriarch. It was he who determined in the scholar the belief that he could discover there, in those mountains, the oldest tree in the world.

In the following summers, Schulman's research led to a surprising result, for the knowledge of the time: those trees were much, much older than one could imagine. And, above all, with 4844 years of age, Methuselah is the oldest tree in the world.

This ancient bristlecone pine is the oldest living tree: located in the White Mountains of California, the exact location of Methuselah is a secret, especially to protect it from tourists. A larger specimen named Prometheus, around 4900 years old, was felled by a researcher in 1964 with permission from the United States Forest Service.

Methuselah is a bristlecone pine of the Pinus longaeva species found in the White Mountains of California, Inyo County. Its germination has been estimated at 2832 BC, so its age by 2020 is 4 852 years. This makes it the oldest tree, and also the oldest living organism.

It is located at an altitude of 2,900-3,000 meters in the Forest of Ancients of the White Mountains, in an area called Methuselah Grove, not far from the border with Nevada. It is 8-9 meters high, and its exact location has not been disclosed as a precaution against possible vandalism.