"4,770 Years Old, "Methuselah Bristlecone Pine" -  Master Of Survival"
"Before Christ Walked The Earth"; "Surviving In Adversity And Without Disease";
"Special Christmas Presents"
"Methuselah Bristlecone Pines" at White Mountains,
                   ..near the California-Nevada border.
"Before Christ Walked The Earth"

Gerry M. Kaye

Dec. 13, 2005

The Methuselah Tree, a bristlecone pine, known to have originated more than 46 centuries ago, was a seedling before the Egyptian Pyramids went up, and is still alive today. "It's older than the great pyramids, older than Stonehenge,...When Christ walked the Earth it was already 2,700 years old," said David Milarch of Champion Tree Project International, of the 4,770 year old "Methuselah Bristlecone Pine."

The Methuselah pine grows at an altitude of 10,000 feet in the White Mountains near the California-Nevada border. It is named after a Hebrew patriarch known as the model of longevity, Methuselah, who is found  in Genesis of The Holy Bible. However, the biblical Methuselah, ancestor to Noah, was said to have lived 969 years, while the Methuselah Tree, thought to be the world's oldest living thing, has endured almost five times as long.

Under what conditions the ancient tree has accomplished its extraordinary feat of longevity is quite amazing. Robert Mohlenbrock, a professor of botany at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, visited the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, part of California's Inyo National Forest. In May of 1985, he wrote in "Natural History": "At the time I thought that any organism that lived longer than the norm had to have optimal conditions going for it,... For plants, that would mean moderate temperature, shelter from extreme weather, and plenty of moisture and nutrients. ...When I stood looking at Methuselah," he continued, "I knew I had been wrong."

Though it was then midsummer at the time of his visit, a bone numbing wind tore right through him, Mohlenbrock recalled, and the scarce patches of soil at the roughly 10,000 ft. elevation where Methuselah and other venerable bristlecones grow, appeared to contain little if any moisture.

In such an unforgiving environment, how can the Methuselah tree and its kind survive, much less thrive, in conditions that would strike fear into the phloem of virtually all other plants? After decades of intense study, inaugurated in the 1950s by the legendary endrochronologist Edmund Schulman, scientists are starting to get a grip on what makes bristlecone pines so "Methuselah" like.

It turns out that the bristlecone pine has evolved survival strategies that might make other, less hardy plants green with envy. These strategies help it cope with one of the most flora-unfriendly environments on the planet.

"Surviving In Adversity And Without Disease"

Bristlecone pines come in two varieties. Pinus aristata, the Rocky Mountain bristlecone pine, thriving in Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico; while P. longaeva, the intermountain bristlecone pine, inhabits farther west in California, Nevada, and Utah. In California's White Mountains, the most ancient members of P. longaeva, including the Methuselah Tree, can be found high in the subalpine zone, from 9,500 feet to timberline at roughly 11,500 feet. Though appearing to be little more than a sapling, a bristlecone may be well over 100 years old. A bristlecone pine may add to its girth no more than an inch per century.

In the rain shadow of the awesome Sierra Nevada Mountains, which block weather approaching from the west, the average annual precipitation is less than 12 inches, and most of that falls as snow in winter. In summer, which can provide as few as six weeks of warmth for bristlecone pines to generate growth and reserves for overwintering, precipitable moisture ranks among the lowest recorded anywhere on Earth. Moreover, the soil the bristlecones cling to is not dirt as most plants know it but dolomite, a limestone substrate with few nutrients. With so little time to get energy from the sun, and so little energy to be had from the soil, growth is grindingly slow.

Because bristlecones live where practically nothing else can, little competition exists for water and nutrients. Bristlecone pines can liberally spread their roots and expand their crowns, maximizing intake of these scant resources. Sparse ground cover means the threat of fire is greatly reduced, a danger further lessened by the relative paucity of dead bristlecone needles in a landscape where trees are few and far between. Like the trees that produce them, bristlecone needles are long lived; they last up to 30 or 40 years. While living bristlecone limbs thus carry a heavy load of needles, such a stable needle mass may prove an advantage in the severe environment of the White Mountains.

Bristlecone rings, which vary in width year to year, reveal that the trees have an innate ability to endure times of stress, such as a string of drought years. In such periods, the species can go almost dormant. "There is something a little fantastic...," wrote Edmund Schulman in the March 1958 "National Geographic", ..."in the persistent ability of a 4,000 year old tree to shut up shop almost everywhere throughout its stem in a very dry year, and faithfully to reawaken to add many new cells in a favorable year."

Another type of stress, one that torments most other plants, is virtually absent among bristlecone pines: disease. The tree has a dense, highly resinous wood that is a formidable barrier to invasion by insects and bacteria. The resinous wood and the White Mountains' cool, dry climate also appear to keep rot causing fungi at bay, so that dead bristlecones sometimes stand for several hundred years before toppling. In fact, the oldest bristlecone pines live on the most exposed sites.

Squat but steadfast, bristlecones put more stock in surviving than in soaring. Unlike their towering (and also long lived) fellow conifers, the sequoias, bristlecone pines put a greater premium on getting by than on getting big. The tallest sequoia, a coast redwood found in Montgomery State Reserve near Ukiah, California, is 367 feet tall. The tallest bristlecone pine is but 60 feet tall, and most of its kind are much shorter. Clearly, bigger is not better in such a brutal environment as that found at high altitude in the White Mountains, where in cooler than average summers bristlecones get by on carbon compounds produced that summer, but can only grow new tissue by tapping energy reserves stored from the previous year.

The bristlecone pine in its reduced size, allows the species, in standout cases, to last longer than most civilizations. When a major root dies, through decay by root-rot fungi or by exposure to desiccating winds, the sector of the trunk above that root also succumbs, along with any branches served by that sector. In time, the affected sector's bark falls off, leaving bare trunkwood. Some gnarled old bristlecones have only a thin strip of living bark, which sustains a single living branch and its needles. In a sense, these ancients have gone back to being seedlings.

"Special Christmas Presents"

The National Cathedral in Washington D. C. will celebrate the holidays this year with an unusual Christmas tree: a pine seedling whose parent is said to be the oldest known tree on Earth. Champion Tree Project International's David Milarch said that project participants got special permission from the U.S. Forest Service to collect cones from the ancient Methuselah, one of which will be presented to the National Cathedral. Its staff hopes to plant the seedling in a special grove of trees used by students at its elementary school.

"It has a biblical reference and is therefore of educational and instructional value to the children," said Dede Petri, president of the All Hallow's Guild, the support group responsible for beautifying the cathedral's grounds.

The tree will be formally presented Wednesday at the Land Development Breakthrough Conference at the Washington Convention Center. Milarch's group will also announce that its scientists had successfully cloned the "Hippocrates Tree" which since 1961 has been on the grounds of the National Institutes of Health in suburban Bethesda, Md. Those trees have biblical connections and other interesting horticultural features.

The "Hippocrates Tree" is said to be the offspring of the sycamore in Greece under which Hippocrates, the medical philosopher, lectured. It was a gift to the United States from the Greek ambassador, but has been sick lately. Its clone will join it on the NIH property, and hopefully fare better.

“Both trees are several thousand years old and their progeny will ensure that these trees live on in our nation’s capital,’’ Milarch said. “They're Christmas gifts.’’

Bristlecones that look dead may have been "almost dead" for millennia. Can a snag with a fraction of itself in foliage, still be called a living tree? Being its reproductive ability is a prerequisite to being considered alive, the answer is a resounding yes, for even the hoariest bristlecones can generate cones with viable seeds. And however truncated that tree is, it is still the very same tree that was a seedling when, say, King Tut was a boy.

If only we careless and brief spanned humans could come up with such a way to live so long.


Peter Tyson, editor in chief of  NOVA Online;
News-AP - Dec. 12, 2005.

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Thank You.

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 "4,770 Years Old, "Methuselah Bristlecone Pine" -  Master Of Survival"  (c) copyright, 2005 by Gerry M. Kaye. All rights reserved.