Over the past month, two big discoveries caught the attention of many arbor enthusiasts.
One is a 630-foot-deep “sink hole cluster” in China’s Guangxi region, which appears to be home to a prehistoric forest with shoulder-high plants, ancient trees over 130 feet tall and some genera that we have never seen before. The other announcement was that a Patagonian cypress, named “El Gran Abuelo” (the great grandfather), who grew to become one of the largest trees inside Alerce Costero National Park in Chile, is now estimated to be 5,484 years old and thereby, possibly , the oldest surviving tree in our midst.
While the first story sends imaginations soaring to Jules Verne’s “Journey to the Center of the Earth,” the second transports us to the Late Stone Age, when humans shared the planet with now-extinct hominin relatives, including Neanderthals and Denisovans. If true, El Gran Abuelo displays Methusela, an approximately 5,000-year-old Great Basin Bristlecone Pine in California.
The easiest way to measure the age of a tree is still by counting its tree rings, but do not cut a tree down to do this! Ask a professional to use an increment borer to extract a section of wood tissue from a living tree, which inflicts only a minor injury to the tree itself.
With very large trees, such as El Gran Abuelo, which measures over 14 feet in diameter, a core is taken to measure the rings per foot and then the age is estimated based on the diameter of the tree using custom algorithms.
Conifers and gingkos are the longest lived on record. They are commonly found in climates that are subject to drastic temperature changes and are resilient in bad weather and bad soil. It is also clear that the oldest trees among us are those that have been shielded from human activity, including logging and invasive pest transfer, and living in remote or undiscovered locations, such as the ravines of the Alerce Costero National Park, the White Mountains in California or even hidden sink holes.
It’s hard to imagine any other living organism withstanding what a tree can. It is a testament to the strength, endurance and resilience of these trees that they can survive disaster, storms, fires and change. It is also not a surprise that many cultures reveal trees for their age, resilience and natural wisdom. As such, indigenous cultures may refer to old trees as “our elders” and may consult them in meditation and prayer. The Cherokee Nation call trees “standing people,” symbolizing permanence and longevity, exemplifying their roots integration and ongoing relationship with natural surroundings.
Fortunately, we still have a handful of these ancient ones, and we have learned to appreciate their worth and beauty.
Older trees actually support the healthy growth of younger ones, which link into the root network of older trees and benefit from their resource uptake capacity. Old trees can pass carbon, nutrients and water to younger growth at crucial times in their lives, actually helping them survive.
Trees also send distress signals about drought, disease and insect attacks. Other trees alter their behavior when they receive these messages.
We hope that the ancient ones may help younger trees survive the current onslaught of pollution, climate and temperature changes.
The following trees are widely recognized as ancient ones. While there are conflicting lists and their ages are based on estimates, the following stand out:
1. Old Tjikko (Sweden) is a Norwegian spruce (Picea Abies) estimated to be 9,550 years of age. Old Tjikko is the oldest single-stemmed clonal tree. The actual tree trunk itself is several hundred years old, but its root system originated during the last Ice Age and has stayed alive for nearly 10,000 years.
2. El Gran Abuelo (Chile) is a Patagonia cypress (Fitzroya Cupressoides), a type of tall, skinny evergreen in the Andes Mountains, locally known as the Alerce. El Gran Abuelo towers over a ravine in the Chilean Andes and is now considered to be roughly 5,500 years old, suggesting it is the oldest non-clonal tree. A viewing platform has been built close to the tree to protect it from over-enthusiastic visitors.
3. Methuselah (US) is a 4,853-year-old Great Basin bristlecone pine (Pinus Longaeva) that survives in a very harsh environment in the White Mountains of California in Inyo National Forest. Its exact location is kept a close secret in order to protect it from the public.
4. Llangernyw Yew (North Wales, UK) is an ancient yew (Taxus Baccata) of about 4,000 years. Incredibly, it appears to still be in its growing stage. In 2002, in celebration of the golden jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II, the tree was designated as one of 50 Great British trees by the Tree Council.
5. Zoroastrian Sarv (Iran) also called the Cypress of Abarkuh, is a 4,000-year-old Persian cypress (Cypresses Sempervirens). The tree is considered a national monument. It is most likely the oldest living tree in Asia and must have witnessed the advent of modern human civilization.
Unfortunately, what used to be the sixth oldest tree, the Senator (US), the biggest and oldest bald cypress tree (Taxodium Distichum) lived in Florida and was estimated to be 3,500 years old. It was burnt down by a local woman in 2012. Sara Barnes was sentenced to 30 months in prison for burning down the (then) fifth-oldest tree in the world. She now faces a new charge for trafficking meth, for the Tampa Bay Times.
6. Patriarca da Floresta, “Patriarch of the Forest” (Brazil) is the oldest non-conifer tree (Cariniana Leglais) we know of, at about 3,000 years old. The tree is believed to be sacred, but its species is widely threatened due to forest clearing in Brazil, Colombia and Venezuela.
7. The Hundred-Horse Chestnut (Italy) is estimated to be anywhere between 2,000 to 4,000 years old. This sweet chestnut (Castanea Sativa) is located only 5 miles from the crater of Mount Etna on the island of Sicily, one of the most active volcanoes in the world. The tree’s name originated from a legend in which a company of 100 knights were caught in a severe thunderstorm. According to legend, all of them were able to take shelter under the massive tree.
8. Olive Tree of Vouves (Greece) is estimated to be up to 3,000 years old. It is actually a common wild Olea Oleaster, with the Mastoeidis / Tsounati variety grafted on it. It still produces olives, and they are highly prized. Olive trees are hardy and drought-, disease- and fire-resistant – part of the reason for their longevity and their widespread use in the region.
9. General Sherman (US) is a mighty giant sequoia (Sequoiadendron Giganteum) of about 2,500 years of age in the Sequoia National Park in Tulare County, California. The volume of its trunk makes it the largest non-clonal tree by volume in the world, even after its largest branch broke off in 2006.
10. Ginkgo of Gu Guanyin Buddhist Temple (China) is thought to be over 1,400 years old. The ginkgo is considered a living fossil, its species believed to be older than dinosaurs. Also called the Maidenhair tree, its leaves turn an incredible golden color in the fall and they often shed all at once. Many Gingkoes were planted close to temples, where they are inaccessible to the general population but protected and revered for their old age.
The Frederick County Forestry Board promotes the conservation, stewardship, and sustainable use of our forest resources and urban landscapes. We inform the public and vigorously advocate to retain or increase the integrity of our local, regional, and national forest ecosystems. Trees enhance our physical and mental well-being; improve the quality of our streams, lakes, and the Bay; help cool the environment; retain and improve soil; produce oxygen while consuming carbon dioxide; and provide shelter and food for wildlife. Please visit frederick.forestryboard.org for additional information and resources or to sign up for our free weekly Nature Note articles, tree plantings, Second Sunday Tree Walks, tree shelter exchange, and more.