Unlocking the Mystery of the Ancient Bristlecone Pines

Envision being alive before Moses traversed the desert.
Imagine existence before the Mayans disappeared.
Consider life on Earth some 4,800 years ago.

Bristlecone pine tree

The Great Basin bristlecone pines in the forest of the White-Inyo Mountains of eastern California have survived that long. Scientists have named one of the trees, Methuselah, after the long-living character in the Hebrew Bible. The tree is 4,845 years old, one of the oldest non-clonal living beings on Earth. The term Inyo, translated from Paiute means “the dwelling place of a great spirit.”

The spirit whirls through the wind at Schulman Grove located inside the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest at 10,000 feet. It hosts a few hundred trees that have survived nearly as long as Methuselah in this challenging sub-alpine climate. Hundreds of “young” trees, 300 years old or more, are thriving too. Over time researchers have unlocked the mystery of their heritage. Unlike most other trees except the limber pine, they have adapted to a severe climate of cold, dry winds and little precipitation.

The bristlecone pines grow in a highly alkaline soil not conducive to tree growth. The soil derives from the reed dolomite rocks that were created some 570 million years ago and later uplifted from the ocean floor by tectonic activity. The white color of the dolomite reflects sunlight, which results in the moisture that falls not evaporating as quickly as if they grew in sandstone, for example.

Bristlecone Pine Tree

In this poor soil, the bristlecone pines grow only an inch per century allowing their wood to become dense and hardy. In such a harsh climate, conserving energy is critical. The pine needles of the bristlecones last four decades, which saves water and minerals for other parts of the tree.

Looking at these natural antiques, you can see burnt orange and deep red wood twisted into gnarly shapes. A portion of the tree can be long dead while another part survives in a strategy scientists call sectoring. This dual existence is part of what gives the pines their inherent beauty. The high winds of the region, to which the trees have adapted, lend to their sculpted allure.

The bristlecone pine’s roots although shallow, expand widely, abetting its survival. The tree produces male and female pine cones every year, germinating only every other year.

Bristlecone Pine Tree

A local bird, the Clark’s Nutcracker, assists distribution. By burying the pine nuts around the area, it makes the tree’s habitat wider than it would be if all new seedlings simply dropped in place.

The great spacing between trees allows them to live longer. A forest in which trees are spread far apart is less prone to being wiped out by fire.

No living thing, however, is completely resistant to attack, sometimes in the smallest form. In the case of the bristlecone pines, an exotic fungus that is moving westward is threatening a stand of a related species in Colorado. In addition, bark beetles can take down a weakened tree. To fight back, the bristlecone pine generates a sap that conducts water up and down the inner core and also serves as a trap to beetles, which lay larvae inside a cavity or break in the bark.

As for Methuselah, his whereabouts are protected by researchers who fear the tree could be vandalized. But he is located somewhere in Schulman Grove. What matters most is that the stand appears to be thriving. In an ironic twist to global warming, new trees in nearby Patriarch Grove (at 11,500 feet), are growing some 300 feet above timberline. Perhaps it was the great spirit who decided to create a benefit of climate change by ensuring the preservation of these ancient beings.

(c) Leanne A. Grossman

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