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March-April 2018

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Unlocking the Mysteries of the World's Oldest Trees

Sparsely populated and far from any interstate, eastern California is peppered with icons of natural beauty, intrigue, and mystery. Death Valley's salt flats and sand dunes, Mono Lake's hot-springs–infused alpine waters, and the sheer granite east face of the Sierra Nevada's Mount Whitney—the highest point in the conterminous United States—rank among the region's internationally recognized wonders. Eastern California is also home to some of nature's lesser-known handiwork, including a range of peaks just to the east of the Sierra Nevada, the White Mountains. Visually unremarkable, particularly when contrasted with the granite spires, summits, and knife-edge ridges of the Sierra Nevada a few miles to their west, the White Mountains are home to one of the planet's most astounding treasures, Great Basin bristlecone pine trees. Only in the past few decades, however, did the world even recognize the allure and scientific importance of this species. They are the oldest living trees on the planet.

Troves of atmospheric and climatic data are locked away in the tree rings of bristlecone pines.

These trees, while fascinating pieces of nature in and of themselves, help scientists better understand how our climate has behaved through millennia. This is the story of how these ancient trees were discovered and how scientists are still working to unlock the secrets of how they have survived through thousands of years in the harshest of conditions.


In the early part of the 20th century, an astronomer named Andrew E. Douglass of the University of Arizona helped pioneer and formalize an important field of study for the understanding of our climate, dendrochronology. First proffered as a discipline by Leonardo da Vinci, dendrochronology is the analysis and determination of the exact year of formation of tree rings. Practitioners use the discipline's techniques to identify environmental factors (most notably atmospheric conditions) during specific years, primarily for the analysis of climate change. Douglass focused his research on the correlation of sunspot cycles with climate change, searching for causal connections between the two.

During the 1920s, Douglass established himself as the world leader in the virtually unknown field when his work yielded a breakthrough discovery: he revealed the exact date of the Pueblo Bonito settlement in the Chaco Canyon of New Mexico. His dendrochronological research of Pueblo Bonito, one of the most important archaeological sites in the human history of North America, dramatically influenced the understanding of the history of the American Southwest. With dendrochronology a proven field of inquiry integral to other sciences, Douglass established the Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research at the University of Arizona in 1937 with the help of his assistant, 29-year-old Edmund Schulman.

Schulman took a permanent faculty position at the University of Arizona in 1945. He then took over the reigns from Douglass, continuing the dendrochronology work his predecessor began in his research into “astroclimatology,” or relating sunspot activity to climate change.

Years of work revealed to Schulman that he needed to find the oldest trees on the planet, granting the greatest number of climate and sunspot cycles naturally recorded in tree rings. His quest brought him to study giant Sequoias of the Sierra Nevada of California. He felt that their symmetrical, cylindrical “boles” (trunks) would reveal the best tree rings for analysis.

However, he soon discovered that due to the semi-humid environment in which Sequoias grow, they are not good indicators of climatic change as they are not particularly sensitive to atmospheric variations. He then sought trees that lived in the most extreme of conditions—ones that would show periods of copious precipitation as well as drought. He searched for trees at the highest altitudes, where species clung precariously to life, year after year. In 1952, Schulman discovered a limber pine (Pinus flexilis) in the remote mountains near Sun Valley, Idaho, with an incredible age of 1,650 years. He and his colleagues returned the following year to seek even older specimens, feeling that they'd discovered the ideal tree species in the ideal location for their research.

An Ancient Species

Many mountain ranges to the west, however, in the Inyo National Forest of eastern California's White Mountains, locals had long been marveling at the forms of another type of pine tree, the Great Basin bristlecone pine (also known as the Intermountain bristlecone pine), Pinus longaeva. At this point the tree wasn't known as the Great Basin bristlecone pine, just “bristlecone pine.” It wasn't until 1970 that this species was recognized as distinct from the other type of bristlecone pine, the Rocky Mountain bristlecone pine (Pinus aristata). Visitors to the stands of White Mountain bristlecones noted their unique individual forms—no two are quite alike. All of them are evocatively shaped, with gnarled forms. None is very tall, at most 50 feet in height, and many grow wider than they grow tall. One of the Inyo National Forest's rangers, Alvin Noren, discovered a multi-stemmed bristlecone that he measured to have a 37-foot circumference. Noren named the tree “Patriarch,” and sent tree ring samples to the University of California for analysis.

Detail view of a Great Basin bristlecone pine in the Patriarch Grove of California’s White Mountains.

Pine cone with sap of a Great Basin bristlecone pine tree in the Patriarch Grove of California’s White Mountains.

Schulman and his research associates had heard rumors of Patriarch and other bristlecone pines of the White Mountains but mostly discounted them as just that—rumors—for their research purposes. They felt that the pines' ages would likely fall well short of the limber pines they'd discovered and researched in Idaho. At the end of their field research in Idaho in 1953, upon their return to Arizona, Schulman decided to pay the White Mountains and Patriarch a visit, more out of curiosity than for any scientific purpose. He was happy he did.

While tests on Patriarch's age revealed it to be “only” 1,500 years old, Schulman and his researchers identified other bristlecone pines they felt might be much older. They were right. Many trees in the Whites are more than 2,000 and even 3,000 years old. In 1957 Schulman discovered the oldest of these trees, what he called “Methuselah.” Using an “increment borer,” which takes tree ring samples without damaging the tree itself, he and a research associate found the tree to be 4,789 years old. Although it's location remains a secret for its protection, Methuselah lives on to this day. Unfortunately, shortly after the discovery of Methuselah, Schulman died. National Geographic published his discovery a few months after his death in an article on him and the trees. His legacy lives on through continued research of climate change and the myriad variables recorded in the growth rings of ancient trees, including research on sunspot activity and drought.

Surviving in an Inhospitable Climate

The Great Basin bristlecone pine grows in only 30 distinct, tiny locations. These are in the White Mountains of California and a few mountain ranges in Nevada and Utah. All of the oldest live at high altitudes—up to about 11,500 feet above sea level, and most live above 10,000 feet. The conditions in the White Mountains at this altitude range are severe: fewer than 10 inches of precipitation per year, cool summers, and bitterly cold winters with temperatures that can drop to –30°F. The White Mountains also receive some of the most extreme winds in North America, with an anemometer measuring a wind speed of over 200 miles per hour at a research station during a windstorm in the 1980s.

Lone Great Basin bristlecone pine tree at 11,400 feet in the Patriarch Grove of California’s White Mountains.

The discovery of Methuselah and other ancient Great Basin bristlecone pine trees led many to ask, how do they live so long? “Plants that grow in areas with severe conditions, such as the alpine, are survivors, not competitors,” explained Dr. Megan Matonis, who is with the Science and Data Division of the Colorado State Forest Service and holds a Ph.D. in forest ecology. “Most plants dream of hospitable climatic conditions, such as moderate temperatures throughout the year and ample rainfall. Put an alpine plant in a climate controlled greenhouse and you'll likely see abundant growth outpacing that in the plant's natural environment.” Species such as the bristlecone pine, however, are typically slow growing or inefficient at using resources, and cannot compete with other plant species under more moderate conditions. “However, there are tradeoffs between traits that confer fast growth under ideal conditions and those that increase survival under extreme conditions,” said Dr. Matonis. These include needles with waxy coatings, which helps water retention for bristlecones. She continued: “Plants do not have unlimited resources, and adaptation to specific conditions has caused some plants to dominate in milder conditions and others to survive under extreme conditions.” For bristlecone pines, where the growing season typically lasts less than two months per year, this translates to lifespans in the thousands of years.


Krummholz is a word with which many foresters are familiar, but few others know it. It is a portmanteau of the German words “krumm” meaning bent, crooked, or twisted, and “holz,” meaning wood—literally, “bent wood.” The limbs of White Mountain Great Basin bristlecone pines are some of the best examples of krummholz in the world, due to time and extreme conditions. Dr. Megan Matonis, Ph.D., with the Science and Data Division of the Colorado State Forest Service, explained how krummholz forms: “Krummholz (or krumholtz) is the term for stunted and often matted trees hanging on for survival near tree line. Under mild conditions, trees of these species can grow tall and straight, but freezing air temperatures and strong winds can damage needles and kill the tip of the plant's dominant stem. Trees can begin to take on a mangled, shrub-like appearance after decades of repeated winter damage.”

Soil is another important factor for the longevity of bristlecones. The longest-lived trees, like the ones in the White Mountains, grow on calcium-rich dolomite, the white color of which reflects sunlight and keeps the shallow root systems cool. Few other plants can grow in such soil, meaning no competition for bristlecone pines, allowing them to survive.

A Trove of Data

With this survival comes natural record keeping. With growth less than 1/100th of an inch, on average, per year, the trees provide a remarkable trove of data for researchers now and in the future that will continue to aid in researching our ever-changing climate. What changes in climate have the trees seen and withstood? How has the tree adapted to changes in climate? What specific data will we find hidden within this tree to help us better understand our ever-changing climate? Recently, researchers determined a new age record for a bristlecone in the Whites, a remarkable 5,068 years. The tree is unnamed, and its location is secret for its protection, but researchers hope it will help provide answers to these and other questions.

The World's Oldest Trees

Below is a list of the top-10 oldest trees in the world, both living and dead. Ages for living trees are given as of 2018. The top three oldest are all Great Basin bristlecone pines, Pinus longaeva. Just off the list, at number 11, is a close relative to the Great Basin bristlecone pine, the Rocky Mountain bristlecone pine (Pinus aristata).

  • 1.

    NAME: Unnamed Great Basin bristlecone pine. SPECIES: Great Basin bristlecone pine (Pinus longaeva). AGE: 5,068 years. LOCATION: Secret location in the White Mountains of California; likely in or near the Methuselah Grove in the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, which is part of the Inyo National Forest. STATUS: Living.

  • 2.

    NAME: Methuselah. SPECIES: Great Basin bristlecone pine (Pinus longaeva). AGE: 4,851 years. LOCATION: White Mountains of California; Methuselah Grove in the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, which is part of the Inyo National Forest. STATUS: Living.

  • 3.

    NAME: WPN-114 (Prometheus). SPECIES: Great Basin bristlecone pine (Pinus longaeva). AGE: 4,844 years. LOCATION: Wheeler Peak, Nevada, in Great Basin National Park. STATUS: Dead; cut down in 1964 for research purposes.

  • 4.

    NAME: Gran Abuelo. SPECIES: Patagonian cypress (Fitzroya cupressoides). AGE: 3,628 years. LOCATION: Alerce Costero National Park, Chile. STATUS: Living.

  • 5.

    NAME: Oliveira do Mouchão. SPECIES: European olive tree (Olea europea). AGE: 3,351 years. LOCATION: Abrantes, Portugal. STATUS: Living.

  • 6.

    NAME: CBR26. SPECIES: Giant sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum). AGE: 3,266 years. LOCATION: Sierra Nevada mountains, California. STATUS: Dead.

  • 7.

    NAME: D-21. SPECIES: Giant sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum). AGE: 3,220 years. LOCATION: Sierra Nevada mountains, California. STATUS: Dead.

  • 8.

    NAME: D-23. SPECIES: Giant sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum). AGE: 3,075 years. LOCATION: Sierra Nevada mountains, California. STATUS: Dead.

  • 9.

    NAME: CMC 3. SPECIES: Giant sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum). AGE: 3,033 years. LOCATION: Sierra Nevada mountains, California. STATUS: Dead.

  • 10.

    NAME: Scofield Juniper. SPECIES: Western juniper (Juniperus occidentalis). AGE: 2,675 years. LOCATION: Sierra Nevada mountains, California. STATUS: Dead.

Will even older bristlecone pines be discovered? Possibly. And for the world of science, researchers will undoubtedly continue to mine important data from the bristlecones. For those who wish to visit them just to see or photograph these ancients, they stand as silent testaments to not only natural life's ability to endure in the most austere conditions, but how that ability to survive creates exquisite beauty.

Visiting the Bristlecone Pines

Great Basin bristlecone pines (Pinus longaeva) rank among nature's most beautiful and photogenic creations. But they are rare, growing in only 30 distinct locations across the states of California, Nevada, and Utah. All of the locations are at high altitudes (over 10,000 feet above sea level), and most are difficult to access, often requiring four-wheel drive or high-clearance two-wheel-drive vehicles and then miles of steep hiking.

Small, unnamed grove of Great Basin bristlecone pine trees on the north slope of Boundary Peak, the highest mountain in Nevada. Distant setting full moon.

A few locations, however, offer relatively easy access. One of these is the Wheeler Peak Grove, found in eastern Nevada's Great Basin National Park. From the Wheeler Peak Campground (reachable by paved road), visitors hike just 1.5 miles to reach the trees. There are a number of excellent examples of Great Basin bristlecone pines in the Wheeler Peak grove, with the sheer east face of Wheeler Peak (the highest mountain completely within the border of Nevada) as a backdrop.

The Schulman Grove, in the Inyo National Forest in the White Mountains of eastern California, offers two trails easily accessed by paved road. The Methusela trail, a 4.2 mile loop, passes by some of the oldest trees in the world (they are unmarked for their protection). The Discovery trail is a one-mile loop that passes by trees aged over 3,000 and 4,000 years old. Both trails offer views and photograph opportunities of individual and groups of trees as well as dramatic backdrops.

The best location for visiting and photographing Great Basin bristlecone pines is the Patriarch Grove. Located in the Inyo National Forest in the White Mountains of California, the grove is reached by driving 13 miles on an unpaved road. Ancient bristlecone pines are just a few steps away from the parking area at the Patriarch Grove, as well as along the final few miles of the drive. The trees of the Patriarch Grove are by far the most photogenic of all the bristlecones, and they grow in an area offering myriad beautiful backdrops of mountains, valleys, and open sky.

Late summer snow on Great Basin bristlecone pine trees of the Patriarch Grove of California’s White Mountains.


Weatherwise contributing editor ED DARACK is an independent author and photographer who covers a broad range of topics. His latest book is The Final Mission of Extortion 17, published by Smithsonian Books. Learn more at


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