Wonder

Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest

In the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest
In the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest. / Rene Passet, Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

WorldBlue  In short

The best known grove of Great Basin Bristlecone Pine (Pinus longaeva D.K.Bailey) is Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest. This unique forest contains the oldest known individual trees in the world, including Methuselah tree that is more than 4,750 years old and even older trees.

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GPS coordinates
37.3871 N 118.1794 W
Location, address
North America, United States, California, Inyo County and Mono County, White Mountains, Inyo National Forest

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WorldYellow In detail

Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, California
Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, California / , Flickr / CC BY 2.0

There is a unique forest high up in the mountains of California, near Nevada: a forest with the oldest trees in the world.

Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest is an extreme forest: it grows at the height of some 2.9 – 3.5 km, high above the “normal” forest, in a harsh, dry, cold, and windswept environment.

The soil in this area is dry and deserted, with scarce vegetation. But among the stones rise low, contorted, and amazingly beautiful trees. Photographers and other tourists love to come there to savor the unusual beauty of ancient, twisted trees in the lucid atmosphere of the mountains.

There are two main species of trees in this forest:

Great Basin bristlecone pines
Great Basin bristlecone pines. / Rick Goldwaser, Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0
  • The best known is Great Basin bristlecone pine (Pinus longaeva). This tree grows in the mountains, at the height of some 2.9 – 3.4 km, and is found only in California, Nevada, and Utah. This is an extreme height for trees. The trees have been “driven” to this location by the gradually changing climate: bristlecone pines “found out” that the harsh conditions high in the mountains are excellent for them because there are no competitors.
  • The other pine – limber pine (Pinus flexilis) – also is an impressive and picturesque tree. This pine reaches very old age as well: there was documented an almost 3,000 years old tree in Alberta (Canada). In Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, these trees are not that old.
History of the discovery of Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest
Forest in extreme height - Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest
Forest in extreme height – Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest. / Anita Gould, Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest is a protected area with an area of 113.3 km2. It is located inside a much larger protected area: Inyo National Forest, a true natural wonderland with many unusual and unique natural landmarks.

This remote forest of old, contorted trees caught the attention of scientists in the 1950ies when the Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research at the University of Arizona was searching for old trees. Trees in temperate zones record the weather conditions in tree rings, and these recordings are of great value for climate research. Thus, an older tree provides information about a more distant past. But, not every tree is good for a quality chronological record: trees in lowlands often are recording small-scale events, like local floods, and groundwater level changes. Much better information could be provided by mountain forests.

Step by step dendrochronologist Edmund Schulman and other scientists discovered more and more old trees in the mountains and got rich information about the climate of the last millennia.

Patriarch - the largest Great Basin bristlecone pine
Patriarch – the largest Great Basin bristlecone pine. / trailkrum, Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

Based on some rumors about visibly old trees in the White Mountains, Schulman and his colleague Frits W. Went in 1953 came to these remote mountains and, upon the direction of a local ranger Alvin Noren, reached a giant bristlecone pine – Patriarch. It was “only” 1500 years old, but scientists noticed many more trees that looked very old.

In 1954 and 1955 Schulman and his assistant C.W.Fergusson returned to this amazing forest and step by step learned where to look for older trees. It turned out that one should not look for the largest pine trees but for the ones that grow in the harshest conditions. Some of the oldest trees had just a narrow strip of live tissue and most of the tree trunk was dead. Nevertheless, such trees still had some green branches: they were alive! The excited scientists found several trees that were more than 4,000 years old! This was a breakthrough for the science of dendrochronology that did not have any reliable data about the time before our era, e.g. birth of Christ.

Methuselah Grove
Methuselah Grove. / Wayne Hsieh, Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

In 1957 they discovered the oldest known tree in the world: Methuselah tree, which was “born” in 2833 BC! This tree is older than, for example, the Great Sphinx of Giza, the oldest large man-made sculpture in the world.

Schulman, unfortunately, died in 1958, but his discovery immediately became famous worldwide. The Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest was declared a protected area in 1958.

Which is the oldest tree in the forest?

Of course, Schulman did not research all the thousands of trees in the enormous Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest. And, most certainly, there are even older trees in the forest.

Thus, in 2009 another dendrochronologist, Tom Harlan, announced that another tree not far from Methuselah had an age of 5,062 years, but, unfortunately, this claim has not been independently confirmed: scientist, unfortunately, deceased in 2013 and the location of the tree was not documented as well as the sample core could not be found.

There are several more Great Basin bristlecone pines that were declared to be older: e.g. Prometheus was more than 4,844 years old in 1964 when it was cut down. This tree was growing elsewhere, in Nevada.

Groves and tourist trails
Methuselah Trail
Methuselah Trail. / el cajon yacht club, Flickr / CC BY 2.0

This unique forest is traditionally divided into smaller parts – groves. Most visitors see Schulman Grove: there are several nature trails and a visitor center (open in summer).

The south-eastern part of Schulman Grove is called also Methuselah Grove. A nature trail, Methuselah Trail, passes the local celebrity: the Methuselah tree. The tree, though, is not marked and its exact location is not disclosed to protect it from possible violations.

Some 16 km north (in a direct line) is the Patriarch Grove. In this part of the forest, in turn, is located the largest bristlecone pine in the world: the above-mentioned Patriarch Tree (approximate circumference: 11.5 m, height: 13.1 m tall). The circumference is measured around the multiple stems of this impressive tree.

References

  1. Thomas J. Straka, Biographical Portrait, EDMUND P. SCHULMAN, Forest History Today, spring 2008. Accessed on 20th July 2022.

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