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Vanishing Acts: Bristlecone Pine

By Claude Stephens

Bristlecone pine growing in the White Mountains of AZ (photo by USDA)
Bristlecone pine growing in the White Mountains of AZ (photo by USDA)

If “honor your elders” is a phrase that resonates with you, then the bristlecone pine tree, pinus longaeva, deserves great honor indeed. There are a number of bristlecone pine trees that have been aged at well over 4000 years, and several that are thought to be more than 5000 years old. That makes this tree the longest-lived life form on our planet as far as we currently know. Just think about that. That means that there are some living bristlecone pines that started growing before the construction of the pyramids in Egypt and before Stonehenge was built. If you are lucky enough to see one in person you could be witnessing the very same tree that native people sat beside prior to Europeans coming to North America.

Another thing that makes them unique is that they grow best in conditions that most other plants would consider worst case conditions. They prefer rocky soils and virtually no rainfall. Not your typical garden conditions. Sparse population clumps grow in high altitude areas of the western United States. Everything about their growth, including needle development, is slow. They can hold onto one small clump of needles at the end of a branch for more than forty years. That slow careful growth that allows them to survive in places where other plants can’t is both their strength and their weakness. One careless or thoughtless human can destroy in a matter of minutes what took thousands of years to create.

The slow growing wood of the bristlecone pine is nearly indestructible. Because it is high in resins it is rot resistant, unappealing to insects and tough. The wood of very old trees erodes away from the abrasion of windblown sand much like rock gets worn away over thousands of years. That sometimes leaves bristlecone pines looking like the ancient wizards of the tree world.

Want more Vanishing Acts? Click here to view the archive.

 

Vanishing Acts: Trees Under Threat was developed and produced by The Morton Arboretum in association with the Global Trees Campaign, a partnership between Fauna and Flora International and Botanic Gardens Conservation International.

Funding for this exhibit comes from The Morton Arboretum and the U.S. Institute for Museum and Library Services, Museums for America Grant Program.

Support locally comes from LG&E and KU. Additional support provided by Shepherdsville/Bullitt County Tourism.

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