By Lowell & Kaye Christie, F47246
This month’s column is devoted to discovering the age of trees, also known as the science of dendrochronology. Listed here are 13 tree species found in North America that include some of the oldest trees in the world, although several of the largest are no longer standing. The list also includes information about where you can go to see examples of each species. In all but two cases, the locations were chosen from national parks or monuments, so not only will there be easy access, but a local ranger should be able to point you in the right direction. When considering the age listed, remember these are oldest known trees in that species, not the average age of all trees. The ages are from a list compiled by Rocky Mountain Tree-Ring Research Inc.
1. Bristlecone pine, Pinus longaeva, age 4,790
Trees from this species are considered the oldest on Earth, unless you want to count those such as aspen, where an entire grove may sprout from the same root stock. The average age of a bristlecone pine is approximately 1,000 years, but a number of them exceed 4,000. The oldest known bristlecone pine, Prometheus, had an estimated age of 4,844 before it was mistakenly cut down. The oldest living tree, Methuselah, is located in California’s Inyo National Forest, but for its own protection the Forest Service won’t tell you exactly where. The longaeva species of bristlecone pine also can be found in Bryce Canyon National Park (Utah), Great Basin National Park (Nevada), and Capitol Reef National Park (Utah).
2. Giant sequoia, Sequoiadendron giganteum, age 3,266
Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Park in California boasts several of the oldest trees ever discovered. Unfortunately, many of the most ancient specimens were cut down. Still, several long-living giants remain, such as the General Grant Tree, (also called the nation’s Christmas tree) and the massive 2,000-ton General Sherman Tree, named by the Guinness Book of World Records as the most massive tree in the world. Giant sequoias also can be found at Yosemite National Park in California.
3. Western juniper, Juniperus occidentalis, age 2,675
Western junipers grow most extensively in central Oregon, so you can combine a trip there with a fossil expedition to John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. Of course, you can’t collect in a national monument, but scientists at John Day have uncovered countless fossils of land plants and animals dating back 6 million to 54 million years.
4. Bristlecone pine, Pinus aristata, age 2,435. Yes, a second species of bristlecone pine exists; this one is found a little farther east of its cousins. Until recently the two species were thought to be the same. Because they live at high altitudes, the short growing season tends to make their wood very dense, which means that even dead trees may stand for centuries. Naturally, it’s great for dendrochronologists. This species can be found in Great Basin National Park (Nevada) and Death Valley National Park (California).
5. Coast redwood, Sequoia sempervirens, age 2,200
Here we have the tallest tree species in the world, with the Stratosphere Giant in California’s Humboldt Redwoods State Park a record-setting 369 feet 4.8 inches (as measured in 2002). What is it about these West Coast trees that makes them so big? Coast redwoods also can be found at Crater Lake (Oregon) and Muir Woods (California) national monuments and at Redwood National Park (California).
6. Foxtail pine, Pinus balfouriana, age 2,110
You have to come to California to see the foxtail pine, which is found in the southern Sierra Nevada or the mountains of northern California. This species is sometimes confused with the bristlecone pine, since they both grow on exposed, rocky slopes in the subalpine and timberline zones and look quite similar. This tree species can be seen at Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Park.
7. Alpine larch, Larix lyallii, age 1,917
The alpine larch is located in the northern Rockies and Cascade Mountains in the United States, but we couldn’t find it on the plant lists for any of the U.S. national parks or monuments. It survives in the high alpine zone where the growing season may be as short as 90 days. This larch species is one of the few trees that can be found on sheer slopes, and is sometimes credited with reducing the severity of avalanches. Since the record specimen was from Canada, why not travel there to see one in Alberta’s Banff National Park?
8. Rocky Mountain juniper, Juniperus scopulorum, age 1,889
This is the most widely distributed juniper in western North America. It is similar to the Eastern red cedar. American Indians used the bark for weaving and the berries as food. It can be found in Theodore Roosevelt (North Dakota), Great Basin (Nevada), Badlands (South Dakota), and Rocky Mountain (Colorado) national parks.
9. Limber pine, Pinus flexilis, age 1,670
Named for its extremely flexible branches, the limber pine often grows in windy areas where bending prevents breaking. Limber pine frequently acts as a pioneer species following a fire, since it doesn’t grow well when shaded by other trees. This species can be seen in Great Basin, Death Valley, and Rocky Mountain national parks.
10. Northern white cedar, Thuja occidentalis, age 1,653
The northern white cedar is an eastern tree, often found in swampy or boggy areas. White-tailed deer prefer this tree for both shelter and food. This type of tree can be found in Acadia National Park (Maine) and at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore (Michigan).
11. Alaska yellow cedar, Chamaecyparis nootkatensis age 1,636
Our tree trip now heads back west. The Alaska yellow cedar is seldom found more than 100 miles from the Pacific coastline and, as the name implies, usually far to the north. Its range extends north from the Oregon-California border, and it is one of the slowest-growing conifers in the Northwest. You’ll find this species at Olympic, North Cascades, and Mount Rainier national parks in Washington.
12. Bald cypress, Taxodium distichum, age 1,622
The bald cypress grows in the Southeast, often in wet and sometimes swampy areas. This tree’s base often forms “knees,” making the bottom of the tree much wider than the trunk. In the South it may be draped with Spanish moss, which could be the reason naturalist John Muir said, “I am unable to see the country for the solemn, dark, mysterious cypress woods which cover everything.” See this species at National Capital Parks-East in the Washington, D.C., area.
13. Douglas-fir, Pseudotsuga menziesii, age 1,350
The Douglas-firs along the Pacific coastline rival the coast redwood in height, growing as tall as 250 feet. Douglas-firs found in the Rocky Mountains are smaller. This tree is one of the world’s most important timber species, ranking first in the United States in volume of timber produced. It is also a popular Christmas tree. It can be found in North Cascades, Rocky Mountain, Redwood, and Grand Canyon national parks.