In a sour and dry territory between Nevada and California there are the White Mountains, where, climbing above 2,000 m (6500 ft) it starts becoming hard to recognise the woods of pines and the trees of juniper.
Old example of Pinus Longaeva in the White Mountain
Above: picture by Jim Morefield shared via Flickr – licence CC BY-SA 2.0
Climbing up even above the 2,800 and 3,500 m (9100 and 11,500 ft), in a not so luxurious landscape, there is a sparse forest of poplars and 3 types of pines. Exactly up there, approximately at 3,000 m (9,800 ft) where the trees show through their warped shapes the complexity of surviving in such a tricky habitat, it lays the oldest “individual” tree in the world.
Methuselah, a Pinus longaeva, also known as Great Basin bristlecone pine, is to this day a 4,850 years old tree
The pine trees of the White Mountain
Above: picture by gnarly shard via Wikimedia Commons – licence CC BY-SA 2.0
Precious as much as an archeological find, Methuselah is protected from vandalism with a very simple method: his position is strictly hidden since its discovery by the dendrochronologist from Arizona University Edmund Schulman.
Above: picture shared via Arizona University
Until the 50’s no one thought that a tree could live beyond 4,000 years but in 1953 Schulman decided to follow the advice of a ranger of the Inyo National Forest and started exploring the White Mountain. He was seeking old enough trees to obtain useful data for his research on climate.
For the previous 20 years, Schulman had been climbing up mountains, sifting through dry and lush areas, looking for unusual trees, or at least non – found yet. And most of all he was after those which showed they had suffered from a climate change and that had adapted through time.
Pinus longaeva – White Mountain
Above: picture by Chao Yen shared via Flickr – licence CC BY-SA 2.0
During the 1st exploration Schulman climbed over 3,000 m (9,800 ft) and, when he analysed a sample of Great Basin bristlecone pine he found out that it was 1,500 years old and renamed “the Patriarch”. It was that tree which suggested to the researcher that there, in those mountains, there could be the oldest tree in the whole world. In the following summers Schulman research led to a surprising result for that time: those trees were far older than what they would expect. Knobby and warped and with a survivor appearance, the old pines had better results in terms of climate data than their greener and straighter fellows in the less arid spots.
Methuselah Forest– White Mountain
Above: picture by Oke shared via Wikipedia – licence CC BY-SA 3.0
Then, in summer 1957, the biggest discovery happened: in a little forest where the average age was around 4,000 years there was the oldest tree ever seen, with his incredible 4789 years.
For that reason Schulman and his assistant called the tree Methuselah, the oldest biblical character. The two researchers did not reveal the place where the ancient conifer was located to protect both the tree itself and the other ones around it.
Born before the construction of the Egyptian Pyramids and survived to all the catastrophes natural or man – induced. Methuselah certainly deserves to be considered as a precious treasure as well as to be safeguarded.
The clonal colony “Pando” – USA
Above: public domain picture
It is true that certain organisms are older than that: for example the clonal colony of trembling poplars, known as “Pando” counts beyond 80,000 years or the Norway Spruce Old Tjikko, with its 9,500 years old in the Swedish tundra. Yet in both those cases it is just the roots that preserve such an ancient age, while the logs last only for a few centuries, substituted when dead by the clones produced by the root system.
The log base chopped off by Prometheus
Methuselah was instead the oldest individual tree that we know of on Earth. Even older than it there was Prometheus still a pinus longaeva, based in Nevada and cut down in 1964 for academic reasons. Sadly (it’s still unknown why the tree was chopped off), it resulted that Prometheus had at least 4,860 years and maybe even more than 5,000.