Sunday, September 25, 2011

Crazy Plants: Bristlecone Pine

A Great Basin bristlecone pine (Pinus longaeva) in the White Mountains of California
Though there are several species of bristlecone pine, I am specifically referring to the Great Basin species. This is a fascinating tree which is able to live for remarkably long periods of time, growing only minute amounts at a time. In fact the oldest known living tree, dubbed "Methuselah," is not that far from five thousand years old (about 4600). Arguably, there are older plants whose visible parts will die off and then new bits will sprout from the old root system. However, in keeping with what would be most people's definition, Methuselah is the oldest continuously growing, continuously standing living thing.

New growth in a bristlecone
These bristlecones grow in very harsh environments, with cold weather, little moisture, high winds, and high elevations. This is what causes their twisted shape and slow growth, which produces dense wood that resists many of the things that ravage trees, such as fungus and insects. Fire also rarely occurs in the area, and when it does the vegetation is so sparse that they don't get very far. All of these things combined have allowed threes such as Methuselah to live for such remarkably long times. The trees do grow in less harsh environments, but never reach nearly as old of an age.

Another very old bristlecone, by the name of Prometheus, which was cut down in 1964, was 4900 years old. The study of this tree led to great advances in the understanding of such things as carbon dating. If it had been left standing, it would surely be the oldest known bristlecone. Still, it is quite possible that there are older P. longaeva out there that have not yet been identified.

Source is the National Park Service. Images are from Wikimedia Commons and are either under a creative commons license or are copyright free: one, two

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