While visiting my grandmother’s farm one summer vacation many years ago, we watched the Division of Forestry measure the heights of some trees in her woodlot. They used a surveyors transit that consisted of a small telescope mounted on a tripod that could tilt to get the angle of the treetop with respect to the ground. By knowing the distance from the base of the tree and using some trigonometry, the height was easily determined.

They told us the largest tree there in the grove had a height of 131 feet and that it was the tallest elm in upstate New York. Before they left that day one of the workers said they think its age was well over 200 years, meaning it started growing well before the time George Washington was president!

When living on the East Coast you don’t often get to see many old trees except in parks and preserves because many have been cut down in the last two centuries to make way for modern progress. It was interesting to find this week a study by the University of Arkansas on a stand of bald cypress trees in North Carolina that actually date from Roman times. It claims one tree is over 2,600 years old!

In the article authored by geosciences Professor David Stahle, in Environmental Research Communications, the trees were found in 2017 in a forested wetland preserve along the Black River south of Raleigh, and were accurately documented for age using dendrochronology – the counting of tree rings. The inner samples were also submitted to radiocarbon dating methods for age confirmation. At this point they are the oldest known living trees in eastern North America and the oldest known wetland tree species in the world.

As found on the University of Arkansas website, the ancient trees are part of an intact ecosystem that spans most of the 65-mile length of the Black River. “It is exceedingly unusual to see an old-growth stand of trees along the whole length of a river like this,” Stahle said. “Bald cypress are valuable for timber and they have been heavily logged. Way less than 1 percent of the original virgin bald cypress forests have survived.”

In addition to their age, the trees are a scientifically valuable means of reconstructing ancient climate conditions. The oldest trees in the preserve extend the paleoclimate record in the southeast United States by 900 years, and show evidence of droughts and flooding during colonial and pre-colonial times that exceed any measured in modern days. Perhaps from this data we can say global warming really started back in the Middle Ages?

For this study, researchers used non-destructive core samples from 110 trees found in a section of the wetland forest they had not previously visited.

“The area of old growth bald cypress was 10 times larger than I realized,” Stahle said “and we think there are older trees still out there.”

Let’s look at some other record holders.

Europe’s oldest tree whose age has been fully documented is a 1,075-year-old Bosnian pine (Pinus heldreichii) named “Adonis” growing in the Pindos mountains of northern Greece. The tree took root in AD 941, when the Vikings were still raiding along western European coastlines.

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In 2013, Swedish dendrochronologist Paul Krusic took a 24-inch sample from Adonis to count its rings, but his coring tool was too short to reach the center of the tree. Even so, counting the rings he obtained revealed the tree was more than 900 years old. In 2016 the team came back to take more samples but this time armed with a coring instrument over three feet long.

Other trees in Europe are known to be at least 700 years old, but because countries there have been densely populated for so long, most trees that sprouted more than 500 years ago have been long since cut down.

The Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi sacred fig tree in North Central Province, Sri Lanka deserves honorable mention. It is a sapling from the historical Bodhi tree under which Buddha became enlightened and was planted in 288 BC, making it the oldest living human-planted tree in the world.

Concerning the West Coast of the United States, the current record-holders for individual, non-clonal trees are the Great Basin bristlecone pines from California and Nevada. Many trees through tree-ring counting have been shown to be almost 5,000 years old. Today, the oldest individual living pine of this type is appropriately named “Methuselah,” a 4,848-year-old specimen from the White Mountains of California. When sampled in 1957 by Edmund Schulman and Tom Harlan they determined an estimated germination date of 2833 BC – about the time Moses was playing as a child on the banks of the Nile River.

The Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest is a protected area in Inyo County where the trees grow between 9,800 and 11,000 feet in elevation. “Methuselah” is not marked in the forest, to ensure protection from vandals.

On Sept. 4, 2008, a California arsonist set fire to the Schulman Grove Visitor Center and several bristlecone pines. The building and all the exhibits within were destroyed.

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Gary Hanington is Professor Emeritus of physical science at Great Basin College and chief scientist at AHV. He can be reached at garyh@ahv.com or gary.hanington@gbcnv.edu.


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