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The Great Old Ones: In Celebration of Our Tree Elders

Photograph from the 1917 “The National Parks Portfolio” (via Internet Archive Book Images)

Trees are fascinating — if left undisturbed by humans and our axes, they can grow to incredible sizes, and live for thousands of years. Around the world, there are trees that have been growing for a much longer period of time than famed arbors like Methuselah or General Sherman. Some of these beautiful ancients may not look like much — some appear to be mere saplings, compared to the gigantic redwoods.

Pando aspen grove at Fishlake National Forest (photograph by J Zapell/Wikimedia)

Take Pando, for instance, also known as “the Trembling Giant.” Pando is a forest of Quaking Aspens growing near Fish Lake in Utah. Pando, whose name is Latin for “I spread,” is a clonal colony. This means that all the trees in the forest are genetically identical, and are believed to have one combined root system. Pando covers more than 106 acres, and is estimated to weigh in the region of 5,900 tons. More than 40,000 trunks (which look like individual trees) make up the forest, and the roots are believed to be at least 80,000 years old. Yes, 80,000. That’s not a typo. In fact, some scientists challenge this dating, and are trying to confirm their own estimates of Pando’s age, which would push it back to approximately 1,000,000 years old. One million years old.

For perspective’s sake, the Great Pyramid of Giza was begun around 4,500 years ago. The city of Sumer was founded 7,000 years ago. Neanderthals lived and walked alongside Homo Sapiens 250,000 years ago. Pando could be four times older than the first-known Neanderthal fossils.

In the western United States, it is believed that there are very few non-clonal Quaking Aspens, as around 10,000 years ago there was a climactic shift in the region, which changed the soil conditions, making saplings less able to survive, and also making it more difficult for adult trees to flower.

King Clone in 2008 (photograph by Klokeid/Wikimedia)

One million years is an incredible timespan for a single organism to be alive. And there are other clonal forests around the world whose own ages are exceptionally long, although certainly not as old as Pando. King Clone, for instance, is a creosote ring in the Mojave Desert, and is 11,700 years old; and there is a colony of Box Huckleberry in Pennsylvania which is the oldest woody plant east of the Rocky Mountains, and is around 8,000 years old.

The oldest currently known and confirmed tree in the United States is unnamed, but is a Great Basin Bristlecone Pine, in the White Mountains of California — it’s 5,064 years old. The next oldest is the venerable Methuselah, aged 4,846. Methuselah is also a Great Basin Bristlecone. The tree lives in Inyo County, California. Then come the Sequoias, like the President and General Sherman, in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

Looking upward at General Sherman in California’s Sequoia National Park (photograph by Jim Bahn/Wikimedia)

Europe, too, has its share of ancient trees. The Llangernyw Yew in Wales, is estimated to be between 4000 and 5,000 years old, and local legends tell of an angel (the Angelystor) who resides there, and predicts the deaths of local parishioners.

Old Tjikko in Sweden (photograph by Karl Brodowsky/Wikimedia)

Other European elder trees include Old Tjikko, a spruce in Sweden, which is only 16 feet tall. But don’t let its size fool you; Old Tjikko is 9,500 years old, and has been growing on the same root-stem since the end of the last Ice Age.

In Lebanon, the Sisters Olive Trees are alleged to be the trees from which Noah’s dove returned with a branch in its mouth, which makes the grove approximately 5,000 to 6,000 years old — and they still produce fruit and oil. Some olive trees in Crete have been dated to more than 2,000 years of age. Then there’s the Hundred Horse Chestnut in Sicily, which got its name when one hundred knights found shelter beneath its 190-foot canopy (the canopy was last measured in 1780). The tree is somewhere between 2,000 and 4,000 years old. But the champion of Europe is another clonal plant: a bed of Posidonia oceanica (Neptune grass) in the Mediterranean is estimated to be around 200,000 years old. 


Hundred Horse Chestnut, illustrated in the 19th century (via Popular Science Monthly)


Hundred Horse Chestnut in 2006 (photograph by Brian0918/Wikimedia

In Asia, there’s Jōmon Sugi on the island of Yakushima, in Japan, which, although sparsely populated now, has been inhabited since the Jomōnin period (around 12,000 BC). Jomōn Sugi is estimated to be up to 7,200 years old.

Jōmon Sugi in 2012 (photograph by Σ64/Wikimedia) 

Other monstrous Japanese trees include the Great Sugi of Kayano, which experts have concluded is around 2,000 years old, and was probably planted by human hands. The Great Sugi is one of four sugi trees planted at the Sugawara Shrine, and stands at almost 50 meters tall. Further afield in Asia, the Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi in Sri Lanka was planted in 288 BC, and is said to have been propagated from the Bodhi tree beneath which the Siddhartha Buddha became enlightened. The Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi is the oldest tree in the world for which we know the planting date — it was brought to Sri Lanka as a gift from the Indian King Ashoka.

Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi fig tree in 1913 and 2013 (via Wikimedia)

The Great Banyan near Kolkata is estimated to be 1,200 years old, and with its aerial roots looks more like a forest than a single tree. The Great Banyan has a circumference of around half a kilometer, which sounds massive, but pales next to Thimmamma Marrimanu, also in India, which is (according to the Guinness Book of Records) the world’s biggest Banyan, covering 11 acres.


The Great Banyan Tree (photograph by Biswarup Ganguly/Wikimedia
)

In Tasmania, there is a colony of Huon pines that could be up to 10,000 years old, as well as some recently discovered giant mountain ash trees, which, standing at more than 90 meteres, are the tallest species of flowering trees in the world. While this is shorter than the California redwoods, scientists in the region believe this is because, in the past, lumber companies often chopped down the largest trees. Also in Tasmania is a colony of King’s Lomatia. King’s Lomatia is a popular plant in Australian gardens, but all those garden plants are clones of one plant, the sole known King’s Lomatia, which is estimated to be 135,000 years old. 

Te Matua Ngahere. Waipoua Forest, New Zealand (photograph by Michal Klajban/Wikimedia)

New Zealand luckily hasn’t experienced much Western-style, industrial logging. Tāne Mahuta and Te Matua Ngahere, two of its trees, are both estimated to be between 2,000 and 3,000 years old. Tāne Mahuta’s name translates to “Lord of the Forest”; Te Matua Ngahere, which is stouter than Tāne Mahuta translates to “Father of the Forest.” Both are part of a forest that is the remnants of a far greater one, one the world’s southernmost rainforests. 

As I was flicking through Atlas Obscura, I came across numerous trees, old and young, some grown into the shape of a cathedral. Some were grown from seeds were flown to the moon. Others, like the Judean date palms. I realized that there are so many of these trees that most tourists will never even hear about, let alone visit. And hopefully through sharing their beauty here, we can help change that. Explore some of these arboreal wonders through the map below.