Bristlecone Pines

¦Identifying Bristlecone Pines ¦Groves in the Park¦

¦ The Prometheus Story ¦

Great Basin Bristlecone pines (Pinus longaeva) are remarkable for their great age and their ability to survive adverse growing conditions. In fact, it seems one secret to their longevity is the harsh environment in which most bristlecone pines grow.

Bristlecone pines in Great Basin National Park grow in isolated groves just below treeline. Conditions are harsh, with cold temperatures, a short growing season, and high winds. Bristlecone pines in these high-elevation environments grow very slowly, and in some years don't even add a ring of growth. This slow growth makes their wood very dense and resistant to insects, fungi, rot, and erosion. Vegetation is very sparse, limiting the role of fire. Bristlecone pine seeds are occassionally cached by birds at lower elevations. Bristlecone pines grow more rapidly in more "favorable" environments at lower elevations. They do not achieve their legendary age or fascinating twisted shapes.

While bristlecone pines are the longest-living tree, scientists debate what is truly the oldest living thing. The creosote bush that grows in the Mojave Desert may be older. The cresote achieves its age by "cloning" new bushes from its root system. Yet bristlecone pines surely deserve our respect for not only surviving harsh conditions, but thriving in harsh conditions.

Identifying Bristlecone Pines

bristlecone needles on branchBristlecone pines are often confused with limber pines. They can be found growing together at the same elevations. They are affected by the same erosional processes, and may look very similar with dead and twisted wood exposed.

A bristlecone's needles are about one inch long, and grow in packets of five. The needles completely surround the branches. The tightly-bunched tufts of needles may extend back a foot or more along the branch, giving the branch the appearance of a bottle brush. The developing cones are a deep purple color, which helps to absorb heat, and mature after two years at which time they turn a brown color. The tree gets its name from the cones whose scales are each tipped with a claw-like bristle.

Limber pine trees, on the other hand, have needles in packets of five that are 1 1/2 to 3 inches long, and grow only towards the ends of the branches. Also, the cones of the limber pine do not have bristles.limber pine needles on end of branch


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 bristlecone pines in the park is on Mt. Washington. Located in the west central portion of the park, access is difficult. No developed trails exist in the grove. 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 treeline 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 bristlecones.

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 bristlecones 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.

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