• Rose Smith

Gentle Green and Brown Giants: The Oldest Trees

Above: Bristlecone Pine Tree, lifespan of 5000 years

Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons

Trees are plants that have captured our imagination for centuries. Their size and longevity make them symbols of wisdom and the passage of time. As human generations pass, trees seem to be a constant. You might even know one of those trees in your town or county that seem like it has been there for ages. This got me curious over how old trees can truly get and how they can sustain themselves for decades, centuries, and even millennia.

First of all, how do we even know how old a tree even is? Sure, we could get a rough idea of how long a tree in a park has been there if someone saw it and remembers when it was planted, but that’s simply impossible for trees found in the wild or trees that live beyond any generation. The only way someone can positively know how old a tree is would be to know exactly when it was planted. Scientists have found ways to approximate how old a tree is. Counting the rings of a tree is great way to figure out how old a tree is (ABC Science). Scientists use a tool called a tree borer to take a tube of wood out of the tree without killing it to count its rings. Scientists can also use math to get an estimate of how old a tree is. By knowing how long it takes for a certain tree to get to a certain size, scientists can use that data to estimate other trees of the same kind. Sometimes, however, for very old trees, you have to use a special method called radiocarbon dating because the core may be so old that it looks more like dust than rings (Live Science). Radiocarbon dating is a way to get an understanding of how old an organism is by counting the amount of carbon atoms in the organism, more specifically a proportion of the kinds of carbon atoms. There is a certain kind of carbon that is a little unstable and decays over time to be come a different kind of carbon. Because we know how long it takes for the unstable carbon to decay, we can estimate how long an organism has been around.

Why do trees even live for so long? Trees have evolved over millennia to live for a long time because it gives them the opportunity to reproduce more (ScienceDirect). If one season of pollination doesn’t work out, there’s always the next couple thousand. Trees also have a host of ways that they can keep themselves going. For instance, trees are able to replace their own organs. Parts of trees can also survive where a whole one cannot, so they can keep on living. Trees also contain special stem cells that prevent aging and resist potential DNA damage (How Plants Work). Trees have numerous tools at their disposal to be able to resist the challenges of the great outdoors and become the oldest living organisms on Earth.

One can find unbelievably old trees all over the world. Currently, the oldest living tree in the entire world is the bristlecone pine that lives in the White Mountains of California (Live Science). The exact location of it is kept under wraps to make sure that no one messes with it. To put things into perspective, the tree began to grow in 3050 BC, people were building Stonehenge, and the third pharaoh of ancient Egypt had just come into power. The oldest tree colony goes to a tree named Old Tjikko in Sweden, named after the discoverer’s deceased dog. Old Tjikko itself is not that old, but it is a clone of an ancient line of trees that have been cloning themselves for millennia. The colony is estimated to be 9,560 years old. Mesopotamia, the first organized civilization, would be founded 3000 years after this colony started. The tree is currently located on an unmarked path at a Swedish national park. The park rangers give out free tours to see the ancient wonder (note: It looks just like a giant Charlie Brown Christmas tree) (Atlas Obscura).

Old Tjikko

Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons

Trees are perhaps one of the most mysterious, august, and beautiful organisms in the world. They hold themselves with strength and wisdom. Through the magic of cloning, stem cells, and good preservation, trees can live for millennia, living even before society as we know it. I would personally love to see some of these old giants in my lifetime. I feel as if they could impart great wisdom.