Standing 30 feet tall with a gnarled, ancient trunk and windswept limbs stands the oldest organism on Earth.
This tree has roots that pre-date Stonehenge by nearly 500 years and the Great Pyramids by several hundred more. Sitting on a lonely mountainside it is a non-descript natural wonder of the world hidden in plain sight.
At over 5,000-years old, this ancient Great Basin Bristlecone Pine (Pinus longaeva) is a living fossil and a testament to the extraordinary abilities that exist within the plant kingdom.
The secret to a long life
The Great Basin Bristlecone Pines are one of several varieties of Bristlecone pines. What sets them apart from any other tree species in the world is their unrivaled lifespan – they continue to grow no matter what.
The secret to their success isn’t a fountain of youth or mystical immortality bestowed upon them by a mythological figure. The secret to their long life is their ability to adapt to their desolate and often unforgiving environment.
When researchers initially began studying this ancient species of tree, the longstanding belief was that in order for something to live for thousands of years, it must live in a near-perfect environment with plenty of water, ample nutrients and protection from the elements. However, despite what scientists had thought, the Bristlecone Pines were not living in the pristine environments that they had envisioned. In reality, it was quite the opposite.
Barren wastelands: the perfect growing environment?
It turns out that barren wastelands may have their evolutionary advantages. These ancient trees are typically found on barren, lifeless mountainsides that receive very little rainfall, have little-to-no soil for nutrients, and have excruciatingly long and cold winters.
The brutal environment itself is actually a large part of their success. It prevents other plants from stealing the limited nutrients from the soil around them and the rocky landscape protects them from rampant and destructive wildfires.
Many of the oldest and most legendary Bristlecones reside in the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest of the California White Mountains – a rugged and windswept mountain range just north of Death Valley National Park. Throughout thousands of years, they’ve carefully cultivated highly specialized adaptations that allow them to survive in an otherwise lifeless landscape.
Their most precious adaptation is their drought tolerance. These trees can survive even the worst of droughts by going into a dormant state where they can remain in hibernation for up to several years, only to reawaken when their roots sense that the rain or snow has begun to fall once again.
The Great Basin Bristlecones are some of the most extraordinary and bizarre plants in the world. It is important that they remain protected, as we would not want to lose a piece of living history.
Want to read more about bizarre plants? Continue with The History of the Deadly Nightshade Plant.