What the Oldest Living Tree Can Teach Us About Life

By Tiffany Chaney

While a Patagonian cypress challenges the record of “oldest living tree,” two bristlecone pines have historically held that record and have much to teach us about life.  

Bristlecone Pines: Shaped by the Elements

You may recognize the image of one 1,400-year-old bristlecone pine stamped on the back of some U.S. quarters. This bristlecone pine resides on Mount Washington in Nevada’s Great Basin National Park where little else lives or dies. There are no other trees to spread pathogens; no competition; no grasses; no brush; and few pests—including humans that start renegade wildfires. Just a stretch of mountains along Nevada’s rocky Snake Range.

Alone, these eldritch pines simply exist, 10,000+ feet in the air, storing water in needles that can last for decades. Even their pale trunks take centuries of gusts and heavy rain; a slowly growing wood so dense that neither disease nor pests penetrate. They are shaped by the elements.

Bristlecone pines could possibly live over 5,000 years and are considered to be the oldest individual living plants in the world. Unique evolutionary survival strategies help them thrive in an area where little else grows. An adaptation known as “sectored architecture” allows the tree to have roots that feed the part of the tree directly above; so, if one root system dies, only that section above it dies. The rest of the tree continues to thrive. So, you may see bristlecone pines that have both a skeletal side and a healthy side. 

The Life and Death of Prometheus

In 1964, a geographer named Donald R. Currey was allowed to take core samples from various bristle pines growing under Wheeler Peak. Currey was originally searching for the age of glacial features these trees were growing on top of, but he discovered something more fascinating—a tree that he believed was over 4,000 years old. He could determine the patterns of both good and bad growing seasons, and due to the age, also read the climate data stored within the rings. The locals called this tree Prometheus. 

Unfortunately, Currey’s borer was too delicate to penetrate the tree, it’s said. Others share the rumor that Currey didn’t know how to core such a giant and needed a cross section of the tree to obtain such data. We do know Currey gained permission from the Forest Service to have the tree cut down, and sadly, all that remains of Prometheus is a stump. However, researchers counted 4,862 growth rings. Due to the harsh conditions the trees grow in, a growth ring doesn’t form every year; so, there could be more. Researchers estimated that Prometheus was 4,900 years old.

Bristlecone Trees: Ancient Wisdom Protected

In 2012, in the White Mountains of California, an older bristlecone was found to be 5,065 years old. We do know there’s a solid chance that there are even older bristlecone trees, which are now federally protected

Greek legend notes that Prometheus was an immortal who brought fire to humans, symbolizing knowledge. Not only did Prometheus (the tree) teach us about carbon dating, but its survival story in such a harsh climate is a parallel to the adaptability and persistence of humans within their own individual stories. 

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