The World’s Oldest Tree

If you are looking for the oldest tree in the world, you are going to have to travel to the White Mountains on the California-Nevada border, where at the elevation of 10,400 feet a tree named Methuselah grows. The Methuselah Tree is a Bristlecone Pine that is estimated to be 4,844 years old. Among living trees, it is the oldest in the world. It was discovered in 1957 by Edmund Schulman.

There is actually some controversy as to the world’s oldest tree. In fact, what is thought to be the oldest was another Bristlecone Pine, Prometheus, that grew on Wheeler Peak in bordering Nevada. This tree was killed in 1964 by a graduate student who, in failing to successfully core the tree, used a chainsaw instead, and hauled away slabs from the middle of the tree.  This caused considerable controversy and now all of the Bristlecone Pines are protected by U.S. law, and the actual location of Methuselah is not public knowledge, and only given out by the U.S. Forest Service to select scientists, who continue studies of the tree. The age has been determined by tree ring analysis.

In April, 2008, news reports around the world announced that a tree older than Methuselah had been found in Sweden. Some people do consider this Norway Pine, estimated to be 9,550 years old, the new oldest tree. Many people, especially scientists don’t. That’s because the actual tree growing on the spot is young in tree years at only a few hundred years old. This tree is a clone of the original tree. What is said to be almost 10,000 years old are the roots of the tree--cones and pieces of wood from underneath the tree were carbon dated and determined to be in the range of 9,550 years old. The tissue in the living tree itself is not from the parent tree..

So, is it the oldest tree? That’s for each person to decide for themselves. Some people have already updated books and websites to include this newcomer.  However, among scientists, Methuselah is considered the real thing. In some texts, wordings are revised to say “oldest non-clonal organism,” and these refer to the Swedish tree as “oldest clonal organism.” There are aspens (also a clonal tree) that are said to have roots as old as 10,000 - 20,000 years.

Methuselah, at almost 5000 years old, is still a living, healthy tree. In fact, you can see it if  you should hike the four-mile Methuselah Loop Trail in Great Basin National Park--the only thing is, you won’t know exactly which tree it is as that remains a secret.  However, you will see Methuselah and many other spectacular trees in this grove and they are all within the same sort of age range. The Bristlecone Pine here has adapted to a harsh environment where nothing else survives. It grows incredibly slowly, not more than an inch a year. At this high elevation, the climate is dry, cold, windy, and precipitation is only 4-12” each year, usually from snow.

If you do ever decide to visit the grove with  the oldest tree, remember that it and even pieces of wood and cones on the ground are protected by U.S. law. Hopefully the experience of 1964 will never be repeated.