Great Basin Bristlecone pines (Pinus longaeva) are remarkable for being the oldest non-clonal species on the planet. This strange tree, shaped by the wind, snow, and rain has survived over thousands of years, overseeing the rise and fall of great empires, growing through ice-ages and catastrophic volcanic eruptions. But their ability to survive these harsh environments and adverse growing conditions is exactly their secret to great longevity.
Bristlecone pines in Great Basin National Park grow in isolated groves just below the tree-line. The conditions in which they live are harsh (with temperatures that drop well below freezing), a short growing season, and high winds that twist the trees into almost human-like forms along their limestone ridges. Because of these conditions the Pinus longaeva grow very slowly, and in some years do not even add a ring of growth.
This slow growth makes the wood very dense which provides resistance from insects, fungi, rot, and erosion. And at high elevation the Great Basin Bristlecone pines spiral out from seemingly impossible soil of limestone rock; this too proves favorable for the ancients. They grow where most other vegetation cannot, limiting the impact that a forest fire might havoc on their near-eternity.
The Great Basin Bristlecone pines are an extremely rare species found only in California, Nevada and Utah. The dispersion of this species is perhaps thanks to the wind, or the Clark’s nutcracker, or maybe some other bird that is now extinct, as they may have traveled with the seeds to other remote areas of high elevation.Great Basin National Park is proud to boast three groves of the Great Basin Bristlecone pine: Wheeler Peak, Mount Washington, and the Eagle Peak groves. More on visiting these groves below.
The Great Basin Bristlecone pines also live at lower elevations where they grow more rapidly, but there they remain vulnerable to forest fires and other factors, which do not allow them to achieve legendary age or their haunting twisted shapes.
While The Great Basin Bristlecone pines might be the longest-living non-clonal organism, clonal organisms (a group of genetically identical plants, fungi, or bacteria that clone non-sexually) such as the Quaking aspen or the Mojave Desert creosote are considered to be much older. A Quaking aspen grove in the Wasatch Mountains of Utah is estimated to be 80,000 years old (although probably much younger). Both the Aspen and Mojave creosote achieve their age by "cloning" new trees or bushes from their root systems— some might consider this cheating. The Great Basin Bristlecone Pine, however, exists on its own, rooted in stone, twisting its way through thousands of years, thriving in the impossible.
Our park also features the remains of the famous Prometheus tree, a Great Basin Bristlecone pine once recorded as the oldest tree in the world, estimated between 4700-5000 years-old.
Identifying Bristlecone Pines
Bristlecone pines and limber pines are often confused with one another. They grow side by side, along the same elevation, often sharing the same groves. Both pines suffer the same harsh climate and are affected by the same erosional processes. This gives them their gnarled, dead-looking, exposed wood trunk.
The best way to distinguish the Great Basin Bristlecone pine from the Limber pine is to look at the needles, which on the bristlecones are about one-inch-long and grow in packets of five. The needles completely surround the branches in tightly-bunched tufts. Also, the needles may extend back a foot or more along the branch, giving it the appearance of a bottle brush. The developing cones are a deep purple color, which helps absorb the sun’s heat, and then, after two years the cones mature and turn brown in color. The tree gets its name from these cones, whose scales are each tipped with a claw-like bristle—hence, the “bristlecone.”
The Limber pine trees, on the other hand, have needles in packets of five that are 1 1/2 to 3 inches long, which only grow toward the ends of branches. Also, the cones of the limber pine do not have the trademark bristles.
Groves in Great Basin National Park
Wheeler Peak Grove
The Wheeler Peak bristlecone pine grove, the most accessible grove in the park, is located on the northeast side of Wheeler Peak. It is unusual in that it grows on a glacial moraine consisting of quartzite boulders. Most groves grow on limestone or dolomite. The northeastern exposure of the Wheeler Peak grove is also unusual as most other groves have a generally southern or western exposure. The Wheeler Peak grove is reached by a 1.5 mile (3 miles round trip) trail from Wheeler Peak Campground. A short self-guided nature trail passes through a portion of the grove. During the summer, the park offers ranger-led interpretive walks in this grove. Check at the visitor center for a schedule.
Mount Washington Grove
The largest grove of Great Basin Bristlecone pines in the park is on Mt. Washington. It is located in the west central portion of the park where access is difficult. There are no developed trails that exist to the grove, so GPS mapping or route-finding is necessary. Some sections of this grove have relatively tall (over 40 feet) bristlecone pines that resemble high-elevation spruce or limber pine more than the typical gnarled tree-line bristlecone pines. Unlike the Wheeler Peak grove, the trees on Mt. Washington grow exclusively on limestone. In fact, nearby quartzite areas are notable for their lack of bristlecone pines.
Eagle Peak Grove
The third grove in the park is near Eagle Peak (Peak 10,842) on the ridge between the Snake Creek and Baker Creek drainages. The terrain is steep and access is difficult. These Great Basin Bristlecone pines also grow exclusively on limestone soils, while granitic soils in the area lack bristlecones.
Please remember that everything in a national park is protected.Some bristlecone pine wood on the ground may be thousands of years old and important scientifically. Please leave all down bristlecone pine wood in place.
The Prometheus Story
Bristlecone pines are said to be the oldest known living trees. They often grow in a twisted fashion at high altitudes. These trees also have sectored architecture, which means that sections of the tree are supported by big roots. These roots feed only the sections of tree directly above them. As one root dies off due to exposure through soil erosion, only the sector of tree above that root dies. It is common at high elevations to see bristlecone pines with only one or two living sectors, defined by a strip of bark.
In the summer of 1964, a geographer by the name of Donald R. Currey was doing research on ice age glaciology in the moraines of Wheeler Peak. He was granted permission from the United States Forest Service to take core samples from numerous bristlecone pines growing in a grove beneath Wheeler Peak to try and age the glacial features these ancient trees grow on. Currey was studying the variations in width of the rings of bristlecone pine trees, which were believed to be over 4,000 years old, to determine patterns of good and bad growing seasons in the past. Due to their old age, these trees act as climatic vaults, storing thousands of years of weather data within their rings. This method of research is valuable to the study of climate change.
Currey found a tree in this grove he believed to be well over 4,000 years old. This tree was known by local mountaineers as Prometheus. There are several accounts of how Prometheus met its end. Some say Currey’s increment borer, the tool used to take core samples, broke off in the tree. Others say he did not know how to core such a large tree, or that the borer was too short. Yet others say Currey felt he needed a full cross section to better examine the rings of the tree. We may never know the true story of what happened to Prometheus, but we do know one thing for certain; Currey had permission from the Forest Service to have the tree cut down. Counting the rings later revealed that Prometheus contained 4,862 growth rings. Due to the harsh conditions these trees grow in, it is likely that a growth ring did not form every year. Because of this, Prometheus was estimated at being 4,900 years old, the oldest known tree of its time. After the death of Prometheus, the oldest known living tree was a 4,847 year old bristlecone pine found in the White Mountains of California. It wasn’t until 2012 when another bristlecone from the same area proved to be 5,065 years old. There is a good chance there are older bristlecone pines that have not yet been dated.
According to ancient Greek myths, Prometheus was an immortal who brought fire (symbolic of knowledge) to humans. Prometheus the bristlecone pine also imparted much knowledge to humans. Information gained by studying this significant tree added to the knowledge of carbon dating (which is valuable to archeologists and paleontologists) and climate data. Bristlecone pines are now protected on federal lands.
The stump of Prometheus is all that remains of the ancient giant within the grove. If you would like to travel through history by counting the rings of Prometheus, you can do so at the Great Basin National Park visitor center.
Last updated: October 8, 2021
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