What 2017 Was Like for the World's Oldest Trees - Atlas Obscura
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What 2017 Was Like for the World’s Oldest Trees

The past 12 months, contemplated in tree time.

General Sherman is not only very old but also very large.
General Sherman is not only very old but also very large. Mike Baird/CC BY 2.0

For many human beings, 2017 might have seemed like a very long year. On a human timescale, this year was crammed with events—rising tensions in international relations, record-breaking natural and manmade disasters, deaths of iconic figures.

But think in tree time, and this past year doesn’t seem particularly remarkable. Certainly the changing climate might be adding stress to the lives of trees, but most of those that have survived for thousands of years are well-equipped to survive this one, the one after, the one after that, and so on for hundreds, even thousands more years. From a tree’s perspective, 2017 was not much better or worse than 1517, 1017, 17, or even 2017 B.C.

Here’s how some of the world’s oldest trees might have summed up this past year.

A bristlecone pine nearby.
A bristlecone pine nearby. Chao Yen/CC BY-ND 2.0

Methuselah and Old Hara

5,000-year-old bristlecone pines in California

The sun shone. Rain fell, no more than three inches each month. Fire blazed nearby but did not touch the grove. Small limber pines grew further upslope than ever in human memory, creeping into bristlecone territory.

Pando, the Trembling Giant
Pando, the Trembling Giant J Zapell/Public Domain

Pando

50,000-year-old clonal aspen stand in Utah

Pando struggled. Its root system, 80,000 years old, supports more than 47,000 trees, most of which are nearing the end of an aspen stem’s lifespan of 110 to 130 years. In June, the new shoots—the young trees that could replace the senescent—sprouted. Outside the fencing that the park rangers have erected, deer feasted on the shoots; inside, fewer were eaten. It will be another decade before the community’s survival is assured.

A yew for you.
A yew for you. Jeff Buck/CC BY-SA 2.0

Llangernyw Yew

4,000-year-old yew in Wales

Most months, it rained more than a foot. The days were never too warm; the nights never dropped below freezing. As an evergreen, the yew only shed its older leaves.

The only tree in its neighborhood.
The only tree in its neighborhood. TruthBeethoven/CC BY-SA 3.0

Sarv-e Abarkuh

4,000-year-old cypress in Iran

The grass and the hedge that circle the tree posed no competition, but still the water was shorter than in other years.

A very old olive tree.
A very old olive tree. Johan Wieland/CC BY-ND 2.0

Olive Tree of Vouves

2,000-year-old olive in Crete

The sun shone. The summer was dry, as it always is. The olives grew and matured.

It takes hours to reach this tree and yet people keep visiting.
It takes hours to reach this tree and yet people keep visiting. Σ64/CC BY 3.0

Jōmon Sugi

2,100-year-old cedar in Japan

In the warm and humid forest, the tree continued to grow, separated now from the clamor of increasing numbers of human visitors, who must view it from a platform 15 feet away.

Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi
Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi Chamal N/CC BY-SA 3.0

Jaya Shri Maha Bodhi

2,300-year-old fig tree in Sri Lanka

It was warm this year, as it always is. The tree’s roots breathed easier now that humans are kept farther from its base.

An ancient tree in Alerce.
An ancient tree in Alerce. Cristian Barahona Miranda/CC BY-SA 3.0

Gran Abuelo

3,600-year-old patagonian cypress in Chile

UNESCO declared the national park where the tree lives a world heritage site; the tree, unmoved, continued to grow in the mountains, not so far from the ocean, where it was neither too cold nor too warm.

A specimen of Huon pine from a botanical garden.
A specimen of Huon pine from a botanical garden. S. Rae/CC BY 2.0

Old Huon Pine

10,000-year-old stand of Lagarostrobos in Tasmania

The trees here, some as old as 3,000 years, are clones of each other, joined by the same root system. They don’t care that humans call them pines when they’re not technically pines; they stand through snow and rain. Each tree may have grown as much as 2 millimeters this year.

The trunk is hundreds of years old; its roots have been living for almost 10,000 years.
The trunk is hundreds of years old; its roots have been living for almost 10,000 years. Karl Brodowsky/CC BY-SA 3.0

Old Tjikko

9,550-year-old spruce in Sweden

Above ground, the spruce survived another year, of hundreds; when it dies back, the roots below will grow another one.