Bristlecone Pine (Pinus longaeva)

Blown by wind, and ravaged by time, the Bristlecone pine tree is a silent sentinel of the White Mountains in eastern central California.  Only growing high in subapline mountains, Bristlecone pine trees are among the oldest living organisms, reaching ages of 5000 years old, with on specimen being documented at 5,067 years old by Tom Harlan who aged the tree by ring count.  That calculation confirms this one individual tree to be the oldest living non-clonal organism on the planet.

A Bristlecone Pine (not the oldest) located in the White Mountains, CA
A Bristlecone Pine (not the oldest) located in the White Mountains, CA

The Bristlecone pine groves are found between 5,600 and 11,200 ft of elevation on mountain slopes with dolomitic coils and can be reached using the White Mountain Road.  This harsh alkaline soil gives the Bristlecone a competitive advantage because over plants and tree are unable to grow.  The trees grow very slowly due cold temperatures, arid soil, wind and short growing seasons.

Reaching a maximum height of 49 ft with a truck diameter up to 12 ft, the Bristlecone pine maintains a bright orange or yellow.  The stunted, twisted and gnarled trees contain deep fissures which expose deep orange bands of wood within the tree.  The waxy needles are bunched in groups of five and form at the end of branches and also aid in water conservation.  The Bristlecone wood is resistant to insects, fungi and other pests which may shorten its lifespan, due to the density of its wood and relatively high resin content.  The harsh environment the tree grows in undoubtedly contributes.  Unlike most trees which rot with age, the wood of this tree is contorted and eroded from sand, high winds, rain and ice.  The age of these tree and harsh conditions cause the trees to twist and contort into other-worldly forms.

Bristlecone pine wood contorted with age and environment.
Bristlecone pine wood contorted with age and environment.

As with many species, the Bristlecone is uniquely qualified to thrive in its selected climate.  The tree maintains a shallow highly branched root system which not only brings in water from the soil around it, but also anchors the tree the the side of the mountain.  Its dense wood which protects from insects, also protects from the winds.  Although the Bristlecone pine population is stable, it is being monitored as a species of Least Concern due to its slow rate of growth, low reproduction rate, harsh environment and environmental concerns.

Natural distribution map for Pinus longaeva - Elbert L. Little, Jr., of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, and others
Natural distribution map for Pinus longaeva – Elbert L. Little, Jr., of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, and others

The age of these trees is story of these gnarled trees.  Although fantastic photographic subject, they are not particularly nice looking trees.  They tend to be rather short, not very green and in some cases appear to be mostly dead or dying.  However, they hold the top three on the list of oldest living  trees and are aged about 1000 years over the fourth ranked tree.  The third ranked tree, Prometheus, was cut down in by a graduate student in 1964 and the U.S Forest Service, because they did that sort of thing back then.  Prometheus was 4844 years old on its death and due to its location in Baker Nevada could be a trip in the next few years.  Over fifty years since the tree was killed, it is easy to second guess the decision with hind-sight and an environmental outlook that did not exist as much back then.  Science is not always clean and neat.

The second tree on the list is Methuselah at 4849 years of age at was the oldest tree until 2012 when an older tree was found.  The unidentified and unnamed oldest tree was 5,067 years old by Tom Harlan calculated its age in 2012.  This tree was around before the oldest pyramid of Egypt, the Pyramid of Djoser which was built in the 27th century B.C.

One a personal note, I can not remember when I didn’t know about the old trees in the white mountains.  I don’t remember my first visit, but I will never forget my last.  The wonderful part of these trees, is that their small environments are so remote and high in the mountains.  The trees are special and should be seen.  Walked through.  Appreciated.  Unlike other large tree groves, such as the Redwoods of Yosemite, the Bristlecone pine groves of the White Mountains, CA, are not as visited.  Which means that you can visit the trees and be alone without the throngs of people.  Finally, when you are done and turn back towards the car, if you are in the White Mountains, you get some of the most amazing view of the Owens valley below you.

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