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MY LIFE WITH PLANTS: Bristlecones Take Your Breath Away

By Jim Bishop, for Let's Talk Plants! November 2023.

Well, if the Bristlecones don’t take your breath away, the 10,000'+ elevation will.

Since my column is called "My Life with Plants," it seems only fitting that I have an article about plants that are much, much older than my comparatively short life, four thousand years old in fact. I'm talking about the oldest living single tree, the bristlecone pines found in the White Mountains of remote eastern California. While there are some plants that are older, most of those, like an Aspen grove in Utah and creosote bushes in the Mohave Desert, are genetic clones of a much older plant that died long ago. There are some other single trees in other places that also claim great age, but for now let's limit ourselves to the bristlecone.

Scott looking at leaf color, the purpose of our trip, along Rush Creek on June Lake's Loop.

This October, Scott and I set out to see the fall aspen color in the eastern Sierras. We'd been planning this trip for a very long time. I spent my 40th birthday, also with Scott, in June Lake. At the time, I was so impressed by the scenery (and Scott) that I thought I'd be back many times. However, 28 years would pass before I returned.

Hiking in the June Lake area in 1995.

In 2020, we had scheduled a trip but then COVID shut down travel. We tried a couple of times after that, but wildfires in the area caused us to cancel those trips. And last year we spent October in the Appalachian Mountains viewing the fall color there (Blog of that trip). But this year we finally made it. While we found the scenery, lakes, waterfalls and fall color stunning, we also did side trips to the Alabama Hills, Bodie Ghost Town, high country of Yosemite, Devils Postpile, and, of course, the bristlecone pines.

Rabbitbush with the Sierras in the background.

To get to the pines, it takes a 22-mile-long drive on Highway 168 out of Lone Pine into the White Mountains, east of the Sierras. Part way up you turn onto aptly named White Mountain Road climbing over 4000 feet on this winding and sometimes narrow road. The lower elevations ecology is sagebrush with the bright yellow Rabbitbbush, Chrysothamnus viscidiflorus in full bloom. As you climb into the hills the sagebrush gives way to a Pinus flexillis, Utah juniper, mountain mahogany, and finally miles of piñon forest, Pinus monophylla.

Piñon pine and the Sierras.
Me standing above the pine forest in the White Mountains, with Sierras in the background.
Bristlecone Pine closeup.

Bristlecones get their name from the dark colored prickly pinecones. The Latin name is Pinus longaeva. Longaeva translates to 'long ago'. White Mountain gets its name from the white dolomite rock at the top of the mountain. Dolomite is a form of limestone and creates a very alkaline soil. Not much can grow in it, but the bristlecones have evolved to thrive in it.

One mile with 286 feet of slow elevation gain.

After the long drive, we arrived at the Ancient Bristlecone Pines Visitor Center and discovered it was closed. It is supposed to be open until November first, but perhaps with what everyone thought was a looming government shutdown, they packed up and closed it early. In any case the center is in Schulman Grove which has two hiking trails. The one-mile trail is called the Discovery Trail and the longer 4-mile trail, Methuselah trail. The Methuselah trail includes the unmarked, oldest known, ~4850-year-old, living bristlecone pine. However, since it was unmarked and we were short on time and oxygen at over 10,000 feet elevation, we opted for the shorter Discovery Trail.

This dead tree was likely thousand of years old when it died and has been laying here hundreds of years before I was born.

Hard to tell the age just by looking at the tree.

Scott and an ancient tree stump.

Take a walk with us along the Discovery Trail:

It was a tree in this grove in the summer of 1953 that Edmund P. Schulman, examining a tree-ring sample, realized that some of these trees were over 4000 years old. I'm trying to imagine Edmund sitting in a tent counting the 4000 rings. Anyway, the tree is still alive today. Prior to Edmund's discovery, it was thought that some of the giant sequoias or ponderosa pines might be 1000 to 1500 years old. Edmund was doing research to find the oldest living tree and had heard rumors that the bristlecone pines in the White Mountains were very old. At the time, the thinking was that the oldest trees would exist with the most ideal growing conditions. But the bristlecones pines proved the exact opposite. They grow very slowly in arid, cold, high elevations with little soil. Few other plants can survive here. They possess a very hard, dense and resinous wood that makes them impervious to predators or disease and are very slow to decay. In fact, most of the fallen and dead tree limbs in the area are hundreds, if not, thousands of years old. Trees that look like they fell yesterday have been there for several hundred years.

Anyway, in another grove eleven miles down the road, the 37-foot-wide tree known as the Patriarch had been found to be only 1500 years old. However, Schulman, realizing that the difficult growing conditions produced the oldest trees, began sampling more trees before finding the Methuselah tree, the first living tree to be found aged over 4000 years. Future discoverers would find trees almost 5000 years old. The discovery led to the National Forest Service declaring the bristlecones habitat a protected area in 1953. An article in a 1958 National Geographic magazine brought public awareness to the trees.

Schulman earned a B.S. at the University of Arizona in 1933 and was assistant astronomer at the Steward Observatory. He received an M.S. from Arizona two years later. To enhance his academic and research backgrounds, in 1939 he earned an M.A. in climatology at Harvard, then returned to the University of Arizona as the Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research’s dendrochronologist. (That's a big new word for me.) Basically, it is the study of tree rings to determine age. Schulman was using dendrochronology, astronomy, and mathematics to better understand climate and perhaps predict future climate. Ironically, unlike the ancient trees Edmund had a short life and died of a heart attack at age 49.


 

Jim Bishop is currently the SDHS board member in charge of publicity and he is also a past president and the 2019 Horticulturist of the Year.

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