When the Great Pyramid of Giza was being constructed and Julius Caesar was rising to power, there existed trees that were ancient beyond imagination. These trees, the oldest in the world, had already lived for thousands of years.
To determine the age of a tree, scientists follow a process known as dendrochronology. They carefully extract a small piece, called a core sample, from the tree’s base and then count its rings.
By analyzing these rings, researchers can uncover valuable information about the tree’s age and study how the environment has changed. However, obtaining complete core samples can be challenging due to decay and the thickness of a tree’s trunk. Often, tree ages are determined only after the tree has perished.
Fortunately, there are specialized tools available that can extract a narrow sample without harming or killing the tree. Now, let us delve into extraordinary longevity by exploring some of the longest-lived trees ever discovered on Earth.
One of the most remarkable trees to have ever graced our planet was Prometheus, a magnificent Great Basin bristlecone pine (Pinus longaeva) nestled in Wheeler Peak, Nevada. This venerable tree had thrived for nearly 5,000 years before meeting its untimely demise in 1964, making it the longest-lived tree whose lifespan has been definitively recorded.
Prometheus’s fate was sealed when geographer Donald R. Currey, researching ice age glaciology, obtained the necessary permissions to extract core samples from the park’s pine trees.
With due authorization, Currey proceeded to cut down the awe-inspiring Prometheus. Upon examining the extracted core, Currey meticulously counted 4,862 rings, leading him to estimate that the tree had surpassed the remarkable age of 4,900 years.
It is important to note that Currey’s count was based on a stump that was not obtained from the tree’s very base, indicating that the tree’s true age exceeded the recorded count of 4,862 rings.
Different accounts emerge regarding the reasons behind the tree’s felling, as conveyed by the National Park Service. The prevailing narrative suggests that Currey’s coring tool became lodged within the tree, compelling him to resort to cutting it down.
Others speculate that Currey sought a more accurate count of the rings by felling the tree. Today, a fragment of Prometheus can be admired at the Great Basin Visitor Center within the esteemed Great Basin National Park, serving as a lasting testament to the awe-inspiring lifespan of this ancient arboreal marvel.
For over six decades, Methuselah, a remarkable bristlecone pine, has proudly held the distinguished title of the world’s oldest living tree. In 1957, this ancient tree caught the attention of esteemed tree researcher Edmund Schulman, a scientist at the renowned Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research, housed within the esteemed University of Arizona.
Through diligent efforts, Schulman explored the area and collected core samples from numerous bristlecone pines, ultimately unearthing Methuselah’s awe-inspiring age by meticulously counting its rings.
To safeguard Methuselah from potential harm caused by well-intentioned yet unaware tourists who may unintentionally damage the tree by touching it or venturing too close to its delicate roots, the U.S. Forest Service has conscientiously maintained the secrecy surrounding its precise location.
Consequently, photographs of Methuselah are not released to the public. Resting somewhere along the 4.5-mile (7.2 kilometers) Methuselah Trail, situated within the enchanting White Mountains of Inyo National Forest in California, this living testament to ancient splendor continues to captivate our imagination.
During the 2010s, whispers of a mysterious tree, potentially surpassing the age of Methuselah, began to permeate scientific circles. It was speculated that Edmund Schulman and his diligent research team inadvertently obtained core samples from a tree older than Methuselah.
Before he regrettably passed away in 2013, Tom Harlan, a scientist who had collaborated with Schulman, revealed that he had stumbled upon a core sample within the archives of the esteemed Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research—a sample derived from another bristlecone pine tree that could potentially exceed an age of 4,800 years.
However, the quest to locate this remarkable tree has proven elusive. Matthew Salzer, a research scientist at the Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research, and a colleague, embarked on an endeavor to retrace Harlan’s steps using old notes.
Their ultimate goal was to locate the tree mentioned by Harlan. Regrettably, their efforts fell short in securing a sample of sufficient quality to verify its age, as reported by the Washington Post.
Nonetheless, based on the imperfect core they managed to obtain, Salzer and his colleague suggested that this enigmatic tree might indeed surpass the age of Methuselah, although it is unlikely to rival the astonishing longevity of Prometheus.
This elusive tree also calls the White Mountains of California it’s home, but its exact whereabouts remain a closely guarded secret, shrouded in mystery.
In 2022, a momentous discovery captured worldwide attention as researchers uncovered the remarkable age of the Alerce Milenario, also known as the “Gran Abuelo” or great-grandfather, residing within Chile’s Alerce Costero National Park.
Employing advanced computer modeling techniques, scientists estimated that this ancient tree, belonging to Fitzroya cupressoides, had graced our planet for an astonishing 5,484 years.
The Alerce Milenario boasts a trunk of immense proportions, stretching over 13 feet (4.3 meters) in diameter. Its colossal size challenged the researchers, who could only extract a partial core from this majestic Patagonian cypress.
Nonetheless, upon scrutinizing the obtained core, they carefully counted 2,400 tree rings. Leveraging the power of modeling techniques, they then estimated the additional age of the tree, leading to the astounding conclusion that it had lived for 5,484 years, as reported by Science magazine.
While this form of modeling is not yet universally embraced by the scientific community, the undeniable evidence from the core alone establishes this tree as undeniably one of the oldest living plants on our planet.
Unlike some ancient trees whose locations are kept secret, the Alerce Milenario’s whereabouts are known to the public, attracting tourists who marvel at its presence and freely wander amidst its sprawling root system.
Jonathan Barichivich, an environmental scientist spearheading the recent research on the tree, expressed his hope that the widespread attention generated by this discovery would inspire increased efforts to protect and preserve this natural wonder.
Similar to alerces, the magnificent giant sequoias (Sequoiadendron giganteum) found in California pose a challenge when it comes to accurately determining their age using tree coring tools while they are still alive.
According to Peter Brown, the founder of Rocky Mountain Tree-Ring Research, which curates a catalog of the world’s oldest scientifically verified trees, the most precise age estimates for ancient sequoia trees typically derive from those that have either been felled or succumbed to natural causes.
Among the extraordinary giant sequoias, four specimens have been identified as having surpassed the impressive age of 3,000 years, although regrettably, none of them remain standing today. One notable example is “The President,” located within California’s Sequoia National Park, estimated to have lived for over 3,200 years.
Furthermore, within the same Sequoia National Park resides the world’s most gigantic tree, aptly named “General Sherman.” Although slightly younger than some of its ancient counterparts, General Sherman is estimated to be approximately 2,200 years old—an exceptional testament to the enduring grandeur of these awe-inspiring giants.
BLK 227 bald cypress
In 2019, a groundbreaking discovery unfolded as researchers unveiled the presence of a venerable bald cypress (Taxodium distichum) estimated to be a remarkable 2,624 years old. This yet-to-be-named tree holds the distinction of being the oldest known living tree in eastern North America.
Nestled somewhere along the meandering path of North Carolina’s Black River, a tributary of the illustrious Cape Fear River, this ancient arboreal marvel continues to stand in silent splendor. As is often the case with such treasured specimens, the precise location of this remarkable bald cypress remains undisclosed.
The diligent efforts of the researchers led to the identification of other trees within the region that surpassed the remarkable age of 2,000 years. However, it is essential to note that only a fraction of the trees in the area underwent the core sampling process, leaving the possibility of even older bald cypress trees concealed within this captivating landscape.
While Rocky Mountain bristlecone pines (Pinus aristata) may not reach the astounding lifespans of their counterparts in the Great Basin, they still possess the ability to endure for an impressive number of years.
A noteworthy study published in 1992 provided compelling evidence that these resilient trees can thrive for a minimum of 2,500 years. This investigation focused on the picturesque landscapes of Black Mountain and Almagre Mountain in Colorado, where the researchers made remarkable discoveries.
Within these rugged terrains, the team encountered 12 living Rocky Mountain bristlecone pines surpassing the age of 1,600 years, a testament to their enduring fortitude.
Additionally, they uncovered four awe-inspiring specimens that had gracefully surpassed the impressive age of 2,100 years. Among these ancient trees, CB-90-11 claimed the title of the oldest tree identified, boasting a minimum age of 2,435 years—an astonishing testament to the tenacity and longevity of this remarkable species.
Unnamed Qilian juniper
In the year 2019, a remarkable discovery unfolded as researchers unveiled the ancient secrets of China’s oldest known tree—an unnamed Qilian juniper (Juniperus przewalskii) residing in Delingha, Qinghai province.
By meticulously studying this botanical wonder, they determined that it had graced our planet for an astounding 2,230 years, with the assessment conducted in 2009. This extraordinary juniper stood tall among a select group of 98 documented trees in China that have surpassed the remarkable age of 1,000 years.
The most ancient trees on earth really challenge your preconceived notions of what a tree can be. Hoping to show up the same way in my advanced age. pic.twitter.com/NAnAxfysia
— Luis Alberto Correa (@luisalcorrea) July 3, 2021
It is worth noting that the oldest trees in China tend to thrive in remote mountainous regions. These serene and secluded landscapes have likely provided a natural shield against various threats such as logging activities and forest fires, allowing these ancient arboreal beings to persist throughout the centuries, offering a living testament to the resilience and endurance of nature’s treasures.
Throughout the world, numerous trees are steeped in local oral traditions that attribute them with ages spanning thousands of years. Although their historic significance is captivating, it is essential to note that these claims have not been scientifically substantiated.
Let us explore a few notable examples:
In Iran, the Sarv-e Abarkuh is a majestic Persian cypress (Cupressus sempervirens) that local tales assert to be over 4,500 years old—a living testament to the passage of millennia.
Japan boasts the Great Camphor of Takeo, a venerable camphor tree (Cinnamomum camphora) believed to have thrived for more than 3,000 years according to local lore, weaving an enchanting narrative around its existence.
In North Wales, the revered Llangernyw Yew, a common yew tree (Taxus baccata), is said to have graced the land for a staggering span of up to 5,000 years, entwined with the rich tapestry of legends and history.
Lastly, we turn our attention to the Fortingall Yew in Scotland, a tree surrounded by tales that stretch its age to an extraordinary 9,000 years, a claim steeped in myth and awe.
However, it is crucial to emphasize that these tree ages have not undergone scientific verification, leaving their accurate ages shrouded in mystery. While they captivate our imaginations and kindle a sense of wonder, the precise chronicles of their existence remain elusive, awaiting further investigation and exploration.