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Old tree on hill

Protecting the Secret of the Planet’s Oldest Tree


Long-living pines are almost fantastical plants. The oldest is science’s best-kept secret.

The world’s oldest tree is aged 5,065 years. It is located in the white mountains of California and it is a secret.

Its scientific name is pinus longaeva, and its common name is ancient bristlecone pine. It grows in the most adverse conditions: little soil, low humidity and very short summers. These almost fantastical plants were discovered in the 1930s by Edmund Schulman, a paleontologist who dated droughts and cosmic events using the rings in tree trunks.

The pines are shorter than 55ft high; they feed on dolomite, a calcareous substance in rocks and grow very slowly, around 25mm per year. Each one of its needles can live up to 30 years. They grow with complete tranquility because on those desolate hills there are no plants that compete with them. There is a great distance between each one, to the extent that if one of them is hit by lightning the tree will burn alone and the fire will not affect other pines. It is an almost Biblical image: a pine in flames, alone, in the middle of the desert.

Part of its timber dries, but that timber is so hard, dead or alive, that neither insects nor fungus can damage it. When the tree dies, its trunk remains intact for centuries. These phantom trees appear like wind sculptures, as if the wind itself had carved the wood.

Today it is possible to visit the oldest trees, and which have been given names: Buddha, Socrates and Prometheus. Before the biological importance of these trees was acknowledged and the necessary measures were taken to protect them, Prometheus succumbed to the axe of a geography student. The Prometheus tree was chained to the mountain like the Titan of Greek mythology. Before it was felled it was the world’s oldest tree.

And this is why nobody knows where the oldest tree is, and which is called Methuselah. Its exact coordinates remain a secret so that nobody can damage it, in the name of science, magic or fetishism. The world’s oldest tree is the world’s most beautiful secret, hidden among phantom trees and others so old that they existed when the calendar was invented, when Stonehenge was built and when horses were first tamed.

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