Oldest Bristlecone Pine Trees in the U.S.

4 Oldest Bristlecone Pine Trees in the U.S.

Bristlecone pines, especially the Great Basin variety, are known for their extreme longevity. These trees, which only grow in the arid regions of the Western United States, can live for thousands of years!

There are two species of true bristlecone pine, the Great Basin Bristlecone Pines of California and the Rocky Mountain Bristlecone Pines of Colorado. The two bristlecone pine species have a closely related cousin, the Foxtail Pine, which was included on this list.

All three species of this American pine tree are resilient to harsh weather and bad soil, which actually contributes to their longevity. Since all of these bristlecone pines prefer particular conditions, its extremely hard to cultivate them succumb quickly to root rot. However, bristlecone pines are able to grow in harsher areas where almost no other plants can grow.

4. Oldest Rocky Mountain Bristlecone Pine

Current Age (as of 2020): over 2,500 years
Location:  Southern Rocky Mountains, Colorado
Species:  Rocky Mountain Bristlecone Pine (Pinus aristata)
Still Alive:  Unspecified

Oldest Rocky Mountain Bristlecone Pinephoto source: Wikimedia Commons (Actual oldest Rocky Mountain Bristlecone Pine not pictured)

The Rocky Mountain Bristlecone Pine is the other true bristlecone pine species. As its name suggests, this bristlecone pine is native to Rocky Mountains in Colorado as well as New Mexico. There are also isolated Rocky Mountain Bristlecone Pine populations in the San Francisco Peaks of Arizona and Kaibab National Forest north of the Grand Canyon.

Like the Great Basin Bristlecone Pine, the Rocky Mountain Bristlecone Pine is long-lived, but can’t reach extreme ages like its Great Basin cousins. In old-growth groves there are few or no young Rocky Mountain Bristlecone Pines. These ancient Rocky Mountain Bristlecone Pines are typically 1,000 to 2,000 years old.

About a dozen Rocky Mountain Bristlecone Pines in the South Park area of Colorado are documented as over 1,600 years of age. The oldest Rocky Mountain Bristlecone Pines in Arizona are about 1,500 years old. While this is impressive, the absolute oldest known Rocky Mountain Bristlecone Pine is over 2,500 years old and is located in the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains.

These ancient Rocky Mountain Bristlecone Pines live in dry, high-elevation sites, which slows the tree’s growth and heart rot decay.

Did You Know?

Rocky Mountain Bristlecone Pines living in subalpine habitats are more susceptible to heart-rot fungi than the ancient trees in higher elevations and tend not to live more than 300 years.

3. Oldest Foxtail Pine

Current Age (as of 2020): about 3,416 years
Location:  Sierra Nevada, California
Species:  Southern Foxtail Pine (Pinus balfourina austrina)
Still Alive:  Unspecified

Oldest Foxtail Pinephoto source: Wikimedia Commons (Actual oldest Foxtail Pine not pictured)

The Foxtail Pine isn’t exactly a bristlecone pine, but its so closely related to the Great Basin Bristlecone Pine and Rocky Mountain Bristlecone Pine that its sometimes considered the third species of bristlecone pine. Foxtail Pines are a rare tree that only grows in California. There are two subspecies of Foxtail Pine, one group is located in the southern Klamath Mountains (subspecies balfouriana) and the southern Sierra Nevada (subspecies austrina).

Unlike the Great Basin Bristlecone Pine, not much research into the age of Foxtail Pines has been conducted. The few studies that have been done show that Foxtail Pines vary widely in age. A majority of Foxtail Pines in the Klamath Mountains are less than 100 years old.

The southern Foxtail Pines of the Sierra Nevada were a bit older. Most of the trees are in the 350 to 500 year old class, while there are also southern Foxtail Pines that are 200 years or less. There are also a few southern Foxtail Pines that are more than 800 years old. Across all of the study sites, researchers found Foxtail Pines that were around 1,000 years old.

Of all the Foxtail Pines studied so far, the oldest one that was ever discovered was a southern Foxtail Pine with an age of 3,400 years in 2004. It is unspecified whether or not this tree is still alive.

Did You Know?

Foxtail Pines don’t live as long as Great Basin Bristlecone Pines because Foxtail Pines live in wetter areas. This causes Foxtail Pines to grow faster, develop heart rot around 1,000 years of age, and die quicker than Great Basin Bristlecone Pines.

2. Methuselah

Current Age (as of 2020): 4,852 years
Location:  White Mountains, Inyo County, California
Species:  Great Basin Bristlecone Pine (Pinus longaeva)
Still Alive:  Yes

photo source: Wikimedia Commons

Since Prometheus is dead, Methuselah is the oldest living bristlecone in the United States. Methuselah is currently about 4,852 years old and is still kicking. While researchers know which Great Basin Bristlecone Pine in the Methuselah Grove is Methuselah, its exact location is not available to the public. This is to protect Methuselah from harm and this means that visitors may have seen Methuselah and taken pictures of the ancient tree without knowing.

Methuselah’s age was discovered in 1957 by Edmund Schulman, a dendochronologist from the University of Arizona. Schulman had spent the 20 years prior, traveling around the United States to find unusual, ancient, and undiscovered trees. Schulman hit the jackpot when he visited the White Mountains and found that many of the trees were over 4,000 years old. One tree stood out and at the time was 4,789 years old. Schulman dubbed this tree Methuselah, after the oldest person in the Bible who lived to 969 years.

Since Schulman’s discovery, the grove that Methuselah is located in has become famous and was named after the most ancient tree.

Did You Know?

Surprisingly Methuselah and all of the other ancient Great Basin Bristlecone Pines live in a pretty inhospitable place for a tree. There are just patches of soil at the tree’s extreme elevation and violent winds. However, the Great Basin Bristlecone Pine is adapted to the semi-arid boreal climate it lives.

1. Prometheus

Current Age (as of 2020): 4,862 to 5,000 years
Location:  Wheeler Peak, Nevada
Species:  Great Basin Bristlecone Pine (Pinus longaeva)
Still Alive:  No

Prometheusphoto source: Wikimedia Commons

Although Prometheus has been dead since the 1960s, it is not only the oldest bristlecone pine in the United States, but one of the oldest trees in the world that isn’t a clonal colony. Before Prometheus was tragically cut down through a series of unfortunate events, it was estimated that Prometheus was around 5,000 years. So far, Prometheus’ record as one of the world’s oldest trees is still standing.

The circumstances surrounding Prometheus’ demise is controversial and no one really agrees about what exactly happened as those involved have told different stories (possibly out of embarrassment over the situation).

What is known is that a geographer by the name of Donald R. Currey was doing research on ice age glaciology in the moraines of Wheeler Peak in 1964. Currey supposedly received permission from the United States Forest Service to take core samples from the bristlecone pines in the area beneath Wheeler Peak. Taking core samples would help Currey try to find the age of the glacial features those trees were growing on top of.

Currey then found Prometheus, which was already well-known for being the oldest tree in the grove. This is where the story gets murky. According to some accounts, Currey didn’t know how to properly core trees and so he cut Prometheus down instead. In another version of the story, Currey’s borer broke off in the tree. Others have also stated that Currey felt he needed to Prometheus all the way to examine the rings better. Regardless of what really happened, Currey irreparably damaged Prometheus and only left a stump behind.

Did You Know?

The cross section of Prometheus that Currey took is located in the Great Basin Visitor Center, where people can count its rings with a magnifying glass.



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