Ever stare at a tree and wonder how long it has lived? Next time you wander around a park or hike in the forest, try and give it some thought!
These entities that provide us with oxygen to breathe and live every day, and a habitat to millions of organisms can never be underrated in terms of their importance to our planet and survival.
Table of Contents
- Methuselah – Oldest Living Tree in the World
- Prometheus (Second Oldest Tree in the world – Cut down)
- Gran Abuelo – Third Oldest Tree (Alive)
- Other Significant Trees
Methuselah – Oldest Living Tree in the World
The Methuselah tree – the world’s oldest tree! – can be found in the White Mountains in eastern California, U.S.A., in the Inyo County to be specific. It’s a 4, 852 year old Great Basin bristlecone pine (Pinus longaeva) and is recognized as a non-clonal tree.
But what does ‘non-clonal’ mean exactly?
Long-living and highly resilient to harsh conditions, this ancient bristlecone pine tree is not genetic reproductions of another parent organism. In fact, they are original organisms themselves – hence, “non-clonal“.
Found in the “Methuselah Grove” within the Inyo National Forest, the Methuselah is situated between 2,900 and 3,000m above sea level and was sampled by two individuals named Tom Harlan and Edmund Schulman (most likely in 1957).
An even older bristlecone pine was allegedly found by Tom Harlan in 2009, based on a sample core gathered in 1957. Harlan claimed the tree was 5,062 years old and still alive. But the ancient tree and the sample core both could not be found after Harlan’s passing in 2013.
Besides these basic facts, there are some other very interesting fun facts about Methuselah too!
Interesting Facts about World’s Oldest Tree; Methuselah
Fact No.1: The name comes from a Biblical reference
The name ‘Methuselah’ comes from a Biblical figure that supposedly died at the age of 969. References to this figure can be found in the other Abrahamic religions as well such as the Judaic and Islamic faith.
Fact No.2: Methuselah’s exact location is kept a secret
While we know of its general location in the Inyo National Forest, the tree’s exact location remains undisclosed by the United States Forest Service to keep it safe from harm and vandalism.
Fact No. 3: Methuselah existed before the Egyptian pyramids
The earliest Egyptian pyramids were built at Saqqara for King Djoser around 2630 BCE. Methuselah, however, is said to have taken root – quite literally – in 2832 BCE, making it older than the Egyptian pyramids.
Fact No. 4: It may be the oldest tree, but not necessarily the biggest
At best, Methuselah is a medium-sized tree. The bristlecone pines grow up to 50ft, at most.
The tree has already made its way to the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s oldest tree. Park management and the tree’s protectors give most priority to Methuselah’s safety and well-being.
Trophy hunters and vandalizers are the biggest threat to this magnificent and ancient entity, as a result of which the tree’s identity and exact location is kept a secret.
After all, who wouldn’t want to track down a relic that antedates the Stonehenge, lived through the rise and fall of the Mayans, and pre-dates the birth of Christ!
Prometheus (Second Oldest Tree in the world – Cut down)
A close contender to Methuselah, in terms of age, did not survive. Alas!
A fellow Great Basin bristlecone pine ‘Prometheus’ – named by a group of naturalists after the Greek mythological figure that stole fire from the Gods and provided it to mankind – was also amongst the oldest trees of the world.
Prometheus is located in a grove in Wheeler Peak, Nevada, U.S.A.
It is thought that Prometheus was at least 5000 years old which made it the oldest known unitary organism at the time, surpassing even the lifetime of the Methuselah tree.
But a more controversial and famous fact about this tree is often talked about. In 1964, Donald Rusk Currey, a geographer, was given authorization from the United States Forest Service to extract a core sample from the tree to study its age, which he hypothesized as more than 4,000 years.
Heartbreakingly true, Currey’s assignment went askew and the whole tree was cut down by accident. Researchers found 4,862 growth rings in the core sample, but assessed that the tree might have been at least 4, 900 years old.
What are growth rings you might wonder?
It is a cross-section study of the stem of a tree, observing the increment of wood added throughout a single growth period. These annual tree rings tell us about the expansion of wood produced in one growing season. One tree ring equals one year. This practice is called dendrochronology or tree-ring-dating.
Back to Prometheus.
With pieces and sections now found across several research centers open for visitors, the demise of Prometheus sparked a movement. The movement worked towards the protection and safety of bristlecones throughout the United States. Wheeler Peak also eventually gained national park status because of this movement.
There’s another ancient tree I’d like to mention here, simply because it also has unfortunate story attached to it.
Just like Prometheus, there is another one of oldest trees which was accidentally burned down; The Senator.
The Senator was one of the oldest and perhaps, the biggest, bald cypress tree. It was located in Big Tree Park, Florida. The tree was 3519 years old when a drug user, ignorant to its importance, accidentally ignited it on fire in 2012.
The fire burned inside-out ‘like a chimney’. Firefighters couldn’t manage to suppress the fire in time and The Senator collapsed. A stump of the charred bald cypress tree remains.
P.S: Bald cypress trees are the oldest known trees in Eastern North America. They are also the oldest known wetland tree species in the World. The species is found in Black River preserve.
Gran Abuelo – Third Oldest Tree (Alive)
On to less tragic matters, one of Methuselah’s closest competitors which is also alive is The Gran Abuelo (“Great Grandfather” in Spanish). Gran Abueo’s age is around 3622, verified by researchers with growth-ring-dating in 1993.
Around the time Egyptians were occupied devising the sundial, a resilient cypress seed burst through the soil of a balmy rainforest in the south of Chile. That ever-living organism would live to bid farewell to the pharaohs, persist through several fires, earthquakes and centuries of logging to proudly stand as the oldest living organism on the continent of South America.
Falling under the specie name Fitzroya cupressoides; this name was coined by the infamous roaming geologist Charles Darwin as an ode to the captain of his ship, Robert FitzRoy. Another name is Patagonian Cypress.
Indigenous to Argentina and Chile, known as Alerce in Spanish and Lahuen in the native Mapuche, these high evergreen trees grow more than 60 m. However, their growth rate is very slow, they add just a millimeter in diameter annually.
Alerces contain distinct resins that allow them to stave off decay, even when submerged or resting in water. This is a convenient trait when it comes to long life.
Unluckily, this and features like a straight grain, pliability, weightlessness and aesthetic charm have made Alerces a demanded construction commodity over an extensive period of time, once again proving how our planet’s greatest trees require necessary protection and awareness.
Speaking of, there are many other great trees that deserve a special mention for their amazing and unique traits!
After these 3 oldest individual trees, there are a number of giant sequoia species on the list which are all dead.
Mini-Fact: The Hundred-Horse Chestnut Tree is the largest and oldest chestnut tree of the world! It’s located on Mount Etna.
Other Significant Trees
The World’s Oldest Clonal Trees
Some trees cultivate as clones of a parent tree via a very old root system – hence, clonal trees.
This is the case with Old Tjikko, a Norwegian spruce (or coniferous) tree (Picea abies) that has been growing for approximately 9,550 years in Sweden. Old Tjikko was discovered by geologist Leif Kullman who named it after his dog. By the way, Norway spruce trees grow by 2ft every year!
But even that specie lacks in comparison to the clonal colony of North American “quaking aspens” (Populus tremuloides) in Utah. Testing and studies have discovered that this small ancient forest of clonal trees, called Pando, goes back 80,000 years.
Measured as one organism, Pando’s projected mass is over 6,000 tons, making it not only the oldest living organism on our planet, but also the heaviest.
The Largest Tree in the World
In terms of volume, the massive sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum) is a giant of a tree, standing at 52,508 cubic feet. It is the world’s largest tree, and possibly the world’s largest living thing.
Also known as “General Sherman”, it is sited in California’s Sequoia National Park and is unsurprisingly one of the park’s major attractions.
The closest competitor is a coastal redwood (Sequoia sempervirens), called Lost Monarch, located someplace in Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park in the north of California which stands at about 42,500 cubic feet.
The Tallest Tree in the World
California is known to have many record-breaking tree species, including the tallest tree in the world: Hyperion – a coast redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) standing at 380 ft, somewhere in Redwood National Park.
Once again, the exact location is hush hush due to fears of vandalism and exploitation. A eucalyptus tree (Eucalyptus regnans) named Centurion found in Tasmania comes next in line at 331 ft.
The Widest Tree in the World
Not being the highest or the biggest in terms of total volume, but the tree known to have the widest thickness in the world is the Arbol del Tule, a Montezuma cypress (Taxodium mucronatum).
Found in Oaxaca, Mexico, the huge Arbol del Tule is an amazing 38 feet in width. Some of California’s redwood and sequoia trees almost match this, but none can compare Arbol del Tule.
One of the Most Sacred Tree in the World
According to the beliefs of Buddhism, it was under a spread-out fig tree (fittingly named Ficus religiosa) that the Buddha attained supreme enlightenment or Bodhi.
Still alive in India, this individual tree (planted in 288 B.C.) is titled the Bodhi tree since it is said to have been originated from the Buddha’s original fig tree. The Bodhi tree and the close-by Mahabodhi Temple are essential Buddhist pilgrimage spots today.
So next time you drive by a stretch of trees, or come across a particular one that looks like it stood the test of time, contemplate and ask the interesting questions!
Where does this species originate from? How long do you think it’s been standing there? What things and events has this living organism, like me and you, experienced?
Alas, imagination and intrigue is key to finding the truth!