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Europe’s Oldest Tree Lives in Italy

At least, it’s the oldest that’s been scientifically dated.

Not a bad view to take in for more than a millennium.
Not a bad view to take in for more than a millennium. Courtesy Gianluca Piovesan

High in the mountains of Pollino National Park, south of Naples, Italy, a team of scientists was looking for old trees. This park, the largest in the country, has a few small villages within its borders, but the landscape can be harsh and, even in a densely populated part of the world, has been mostly undeveloped. The team was conducting a three-year survey, hoping to better understand aging and senescence in forests, as well as the changes in the landscape over time.

On one rocky cliff, they found a tree that looked even older than the rest. How old was hard to tell—inside, the scientists found that its core had begun to disintegrate. But by using radiocarbon dating and examining the rings of the tree’s roots, they were able to come up with a year when the tree’s first ring would have formed: 789.

That makes this tree, a Heldreich’s pine now named Italus, approximately 1,230 years old. It’s now the oldest scientifically dated tree in Europe.

Italus has been growing here for 1,230 years.
Italus has been growing here for 1,230 years. Courtesy Gianluca Piovesan

There are other trees in Europe that are believed to be older, but they have not been scientifically dated. In Sweden, a tree named Old Tjikko is famous for being more than 9,500 years old, but it’s part of a clonal organism; the current trunk of Old Tjikko is much younger, having been around for only a few hundred years.*

Trees can live for millennia, often in places humans are reluctant to live. That’s part of what keeps them safe. Many of the trees in the park are hundreds of years old; not far from Italus, the team found other millennium-old trees, too.

Much of Italus’ crown is dead, but parts of the tree are still growing and could live for many years to come. “It lives in a harsh high mountain environment with many types of natural disturbances,” says Gianluca Piovesan, of Tuscia University, the lead author of the Ecology paper describing the tree’s discovery. “We don’t know how many years Italus will survive but a comparison with millennium-old trees of the genus Pinus living in North American indicates that the tree can live for many years.”

*Update: This paragraph was added to clarify why Italus qualifies as the oldest in Europe.