Which are the Oldest Trees on Earth

By Mary Smith. Updated: November 24, 2017
Which are the Oldest Trees on Earth

Trees have great symbolic meaning in different cultures. Their aspects of growth and regrowth during the seasons fascinated ancient cultures and still fascinates us now. They are one of humanity's dearest friends and perhaps their most important resource. Not only do trees provide the obvious in the form of fruit and lumber, but they have been used to extract medicines and they convert carbon dioxide into oxygen. One of the reasons they have been so admired by different cultures is that they must have seemed immortal, the same tree thriving at a child's birth as it does their death as an old person. At oneHOWTO, we're going to look at the oldest trees on earth. We'll find out both the species which survive the longest as well as taking a look at some of the oldest individual trees throughout history.

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How to tell the age of a tree

There is difficulty in working out the life span of trees as some of the trees whose age can be verified are much older than records of them exist. Once you get to a certain point, there is little difference between the world's oldest tree species and the world's oldest tree. We also can't quite determine the tree which lives to the oldest age because that tree is, as far as we know, still living and likely to still be living long after we're gone. If looking at younger trees we know that some species have relatively short lifespans, such as cherry trees which have a lifespan of c. 15 - 20 years. All trees, however, are perennials meaning they live longer than 2 years.

The Ancient Greek philosopher and 'father of botany' Theophrastus was the first to record the presence of tree rings, although it is possible this was known before. Still, determining the age of a tree is never completely accurate, unless you know the exact date of germination. There are a few ways of estimating the age of a tree, but they are all still estimates. There are no exact methods of determining a tree's age.

Find the diameter of the tree

The first method is quite inaccurate, but it may help us get a general idea of the age of a tree. Go about 4.5' on the tree trunk and measure it's circumference with a tape measure. To work out the diameter, we use some simple math:

Diameter = circumference / 3.142 (pi)

Once you find out the diameter, you will need to divide it in half so that you known the radius of the tree. You will need to find the average width of a ring of the species of tree (known as growth rings[1]). You may need a manual or to do a little research. This number represents one year of the tree's lifespan. If you divide the radius of the tree by this number, you will have a general idea of the age of the tree.

Unfortunately, there are many reasons why this would prove inaccurate. Firstly, is the difficult in finding out the average of one growth ring. There are different factors in determining this such as the rainfall during a particular year. If it was a dry year, the rings will be thinner than those grown during a wetter season. Insects, fungus, weather conditions and other factors can change the radius of the tree, providing inaccurate estimation.

Counting the rings of a tree

The other main way to determine the age of a tree is by counting the growth rings. As each ring represents one year of the tree's life, simply counting will give you a generally good idea of its age. However, getting a look at these rings is not the easiest task.

Counting the rings of a dead tree is slightly easier. You can simply cut through the trunk and count the rings of the stump. However, if you want your tree to keep on going and become the world's oldest tree, you will need to be more careful. You will need to get a sample of the tree by using something called an increment borer[2]. This is a large rod which drills into the tree, but is hollow in the middle. When you bore through the trunk of the tree, it pulls out a length of its innards. These are made up of different sections, but the middle has the rings which are actually the phloem of the tree[3], carrying nutrients up and down the trunk.

Pulling out this bored section, it needs to be at least 75% of the width of the tree. This is so that you get all the rings to count. However, if you have a very old tree, you need a very long borer and this can be a difficult task to carry out. It can be even more difficult to date some of the oldest trees because the wood in their middle, known as the inner bark, has rotted away. The dating of trees by their rings is called dendrochronology.

Which are the Oldest Trees on Earth - How to tell the age of a tree
Image: United States Forest Service

Great Basin bristlecone pine

This species is a variation of pine trees, the type of tree many people put up in their living rooms every year at Christmas. This version, however, does not have the same conical shape or sleek growth. Instead, they can become quite gnarled looking, their trunk and roots spilling out over ground at a width of between 2.5 - 3.6 meters. The tree which is thought to be the oldest tree in the world is from this species.

Many of the trees which grow to be incredibly old have been given individual names, but the discoverer of this individual tree's age (a tree researcher called Tom Harlan) has kept it a secret. This is because some of the most famous trees which have survived millennia of nature's hardships, have been destroyed by humanity's callousness[4]. This one is thought to be 5,067 years old. We do know that it is located in the White Mountains of California, facing the Sierra Nevada mountain range. The United States has some of the most diverse and ancient flora in the world. Most likely due to its relative lack of development compared to parts of Europe and Asia.

The Great Basin bristlecone pine is known in its Latin form as pinus longaeva which means "aged pine" in English. A suitable moniker for what is surely one of the oldest trees in the world, if not the oldest. It is also very susceptible to fire damage, so the fact it has lasted this long without being burned is even more incredible.

Which are the Oldest Trees on Earth - Great Basin bristlecone pine

Patagonian Cyprus

The Patagonian cyprus is a tree species which follows the bristlecone pine as having a specimen considered to be the oldest in the world. This one stays in the America, but is located a little further south in Chile. It is the largest tree species in South America growing up to 70 m (230') tall. The oldest recorded is known as the Gran Abuelo, this translates as great grandfather.

The tree is very large, but because of its fine wood, logging caused its species to severely dwindle. It was said that a single tree could provide up to 600 planks of wood. Part of this logging problem was caused by early colonizers and Charles Darwin was known to have made notations on this tree during his expeditions. They are now a protected species due to their threat of extinction.

The Patagonian cyprus tree is also known as the Fitzroya, named after Robert FitzRoy, the captain of the HMS Beagle. This boat took Charles Darwin to the Americas and helped the foundation of scientific knowledge as we know it.

Which are the Oldest Trees on Earth - Patagonian Cyprus

European olive tree

Olives have been used as food or to make oil for millennia, believed to be as early as 8th century BC. However, just because their fruit has been eaten for this long, doesn't mean the trees necessarily last. One tree in Portugal, however, is thought to be the oldest in Europe. It is known as Oliveira de Mouchão and is recorded as being 3,350 years old.

Olive trees, however, have had their age noticed by history and even link with key figures in Western thought. There was an olive tree in Athens which is believed to be left over from Plato's Academy, imaginatively known as 'Plato's Olive Tree', which makes it about 2,400 years old. It was believed to be stolen as firewood in 2013. There is also an olive tree in Croatia which bears about 66 lbs of olives per year, despite it being estimated at 1,600 years old. The largest olive grown by olive trees is the donkey olive and the smallest is known as the bullet.

Which are the Oldest Trees on Earth - European olive tree

The Giant Sequoia

The giant sequoia is a redwood tree which is the next oldest recorded tree, but also bears the distinction of being the largest tree species in the world. Hey are only the fifth tallest tree, the first being a related species known as the coastal redwood (or California redwood). The oldest still living giant sequoia is known as The President, named after President Warren G. Harding in 1923.

The giant sequoia can be found in California and are so large that many have been bored through the middle so that cars can drive underneath. They were so large, they became famous and were subject to exhibitions and felling. Unfortunately this means that many of the potentially aged trees were destroyed for lumber. It wasn't only drive thrus which were built into the wood of the giant sequoia. Houses were built on top and much of them are seen as ornamental. You can see perhaps the most beautiful gathering in the Yosemite National Park in California.

Unfortunately a lot of the felled trees which were to be used for lumber didn't even make it to be used as buildings. This is because they are so large, they were almost impossible to fell properly. This resulted in up to 80% of the trees being unusable. As they are so old, often the wood inside was similarly unusable.

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Image: United States Forest Service
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