January 06, 2021

Long-Living Trees the Bristlecone Pine

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When you first encounter the bristlecone pine, it's easy to see that these trees must live long lives. Each trunk bend and twist speaks of a hearty and beaten growth to where it stands ever resilient.

Rocky Mountain bristlecone pine, Pinus aristata the oldest living example is 2,500 years old on black mountain in Colorado (related to Pinus longaeva, the famously old bristlecone pines in California). The limited range “Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest” is located in the White Mountains on the eastern edge of California. The grove is home to the famous 4,848-year-old Methuselah tree and to another that is an incredible 5,067 years old. They are the two oldest non-clonal organisms on Earth, the term means they don’t reproduce through cloning, making their trunks as old as their roots. Bristlecone pine is also known as "Wind Timber", "Hickory Pine", "Krummholz" and "Foxtail Pine." Often they will die in sections and as the roots become exposed they will dry out and die giving it distinct twists. The tree is interesting because the needles stay on the limb for over 40 years, unlike most other pines, which shed their needles every few years. 

Native in scattered mountainous areas in the interior West, including Mountains of Utah and the Great Basin. Bristlecones are only found in six states. Slow growing and very long-lived (over 4,000 years old) on dry, tough sites. This hearty tree is seldom used but should be more often; you can even find them at local nurseries. very slow-growing; nice dark green color and interesting, sometimes contorted form; needs little or no supplemental water once established. Bristlecones have 5 needles per fascicle and can grow to be 40-60 feet in height. Don't try planting bristlecone pine trees in areas with clay or heavy soil, good drainage and lots of sunlight is essential!

As you ponder the twisted beauty of the weathered and gnarled trunks, take a moment to reflect on all they have withstood after 5,000 years of wind, sun, snow, and rain! Because these trees are thousands of years old, we can understand what the environment was like thousands of years ago and gain valuable information on climate.