The bristlecone pine is the oldest known tree species in the world. In fact, if a person were to travel back to the times of ancient Egypt, this would be one of the trees that would be seen.
The bristlecone pine, or Pinus longaeva, can live to be up to 5000 years old, making one of the longest living organisms. It enjoys living in scattered locations in arid mountains just below the tree line, which is between 5600 and 11,200 feet elevation. The short growing season, high winds, cold temperatures and dryness of the area cause the trees to grow slowly.
The bristlecone pine has multiple trunks which, due to the elements, become twisted and gnarled. A lot of the plant is dead wood and the wind blows sand and ice on the dead wood creating a smooth surface. After a fire, drought or storm, as a survival strategy, quite a bit of the bark and conductive tissue dies back. This allows the tree to reduce the supply of nutrients that it needs to supply to the tissue and helps to balance out the rest of the damage that is incurred.
The bark is red-brown in color with thick ridges which occur irregularly on the bark. The crown of the tree is rounded and the branches and needles look like a brush that is used to clean bottles. The needles are deep yellow-green in color, have blunt ends and grow in units of five. They are about one to one and one-half inches long. The needles can live about 25 to 30 years. Because of this, the tree does not need to use energy to create new needles every year. This helps the tree survive.
The bristlecone pine-produced catkins, or male flowers, are dark red in color. The female cones are oval and can be a purple to brown in color. These cones are between two and a half to four inches long and can take up to two years to reach maturity. Cones could be another source of the name for the tree as they have long, hooked spines on their scales.
These trees grow to less than 60 feet in height, while the largest tree, the Patriarch, is 36 feet eight inches around at 1500 years of age. There are some trees that are over 4000 years in age but the average is 1000 years.
Generally, the trees will fall over after the roots decay or are eroded. The bristlecone can live on dolomite and alkaline that is found in their areas. This is beneficial as other plants that could be competitive could not thrive on this soil. The bristlecone does better when they are separated from other plants, even other bristlecone pines. This distance between trees also has helped the trees survive as when a fire or thunder strike hits, the trees are far enough apart that the fire does not spread easily.
The bristlecone pine lives in the mountainous areas of six western states of the United States. The oldest known tree, Methuselah, is over 4500 years of age. The park service has not labeled it to keep it from harm. Another tree, Prometheus, was killed soon after its discovery in 1964, due to scientists being allowed to cut it down to examine its history.
There are three species of bristlecone pine which are closely related. These are: the Rocky Mountains bristlecone pine, Pinus aristata, which is found in Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona; Great Basin bristlecone pine, Pinus longaeva, which is found in Utah, Nevada, and Eastern California; Foxtail pine Pinus balfouriana, which is found in California and in northern Oregon.