Trees are some of the longest-lived organisms on the planet. At least 50 trees have been around for more than a millenium, but there may be countless other ancient trees that haven’t been discovered yet.
Trees can live such a long time for several reasons. One secret to their longevity is their compartmentalized vascular system, which allows parts of the tree to die while other portions thrive. Many create defensive compounds to fight off deadly bacteria or parasites.
And some of the oldest trees on earth, the great bristlecone pines, don’t seem to age like we do. At 3,000-plus years, these trees continue to grow just as vigorously as their 100-year-old counterparts. Unlike animals, these pines don’t rack up genetic mutations in their cells as the years go by.
Some trees defy time by sending out clones, or genetically identical shoots, so that one trunk’s demise doesn’t spell the end for the organism. The giant colonies can have thousands of individual trunks, but share the same network of roots.
This gallery contains images of some of the oldest, most venerable and impressive trees on earth.
Pando While Pando isn’t technically the oldest individual tree, this clonal colony of Quaking Aspen in Utah is truly ancient. The 105-acre colony is made of genetically identical trees, called stems, connected by a single root system. The “trembling giant” got its start at least 80,000 years ago, when all of our human ancestors were still living in Africa. But some estimate the woodland could be as old as 1 million years, which would mean Pando predates the earliest Homo sapiens by 800,000 years. At 6,615 tons, Pando is also the heaviest living organism on earth.
The photo above of the Pando colony was taken by Rachel Sussman, as part of The Oldest Living Things In The World project.
Image: “Clonal Quaking Aspens #0906-4318 (80,000 years old, Fish Lake, UT)” / Rachel Sussman
Methuselah The world’s oldest individual tree lives 10,000 feet above sea level in the Inyo National Forest, California. A staggering 4,765 years old, this primeval tree was already a century old when the first pyramid was built in Egypt. The tree is hidden among other millennia-old Great Basin bristlecone pines in a grove called the Forest of Ancients. To protect the tree from vandalism, the forest service keeps its exact location secret, but this one looks like it could be Methuselah. Image: cwsteeds/flickr.
Zoroastrian Sarv (Sarv-e-Abarkooh) This giant cypress lives in Abarkooh, Iran. The evergreen took root between 4,000 and 4,500 years ago, around the time that Stonehenge was being completed. It may be the oldest living thing in Asia, and is a national monument in Iran. The Zorastrian Sarv stands about 82 feet high and has a girth of 37.8 feet. Copyright Image: Leo Kerner/flickr.
Llangernyw Yew This common yew in Llangernyw, Wales, sprouted during Britain’s Bronze Age, and is between 3,000 and 4,000 years old. Yew trees can live so long because new shoots from the trunk fuse with it. When the main trunk dies, these offshoots keep going. Branches can also take root in the rotting trunk, or reach down into the soil near the base. Image: Wikimedia Commons
Alerce Tree The majestic evergreen tree was discovered in 1993 in a grove in the Andes Mountains of south-central Chile. Using tree rings, scientists showed the giant is 3,620 years old. Though these Patagonian cypresses can reach 150 feet tall, they gain only a millimeter in girth each year, and can take a thousand years to be full-grown. The Zoroastrian Sarv and the Llangernyw yew are thought to be older, but the Alerce is the second oldest tree to have its exact age calculated. Image:andreaugarte/flickr
The Senator This giant bald cypress lives in the semi-tropical Big Tree Park, Florida, among palm trees. The Senator is the biggest tree by volume east of the Mississippi River. The 125-foot-tall behemoth is about 3,500 years old. The cypress germinated around the same time as the Polynesians first settled Fiji. Image: rogue_poet/flickr
Jōmon Sugi This cryptomeria tree’s 83-foot height and 53-foot girth makes it the largest conifer in Japan. The tree grows in a misty, old-growth forest on the north face of the tallest mountain on Yakushima island in Japan. Tree rings indicate the venerable cryptomeria is at least 2,000 years old, though some estimate it could be as old as 7,000 years. Image: mattb_tv/flickr
Old Tjikko This ancient, 16-foot tall Norway spruce lives in the scrubby Fulufjället Mountains in Sweden. At 9,550 years, Old Tjikko is the oldest single-stemmed clonal tree, and took root not long after the glaciers receded from Scandinavia after the last ice age. To figure out the hardy spruce’s age, scientists carbon-dated its roots. For thousands of years, the forbidding tundra-climate kept Old Tjikko in shrub form. But as weather warmed over the last century, the shrub has grown into a full-fledged tree. The spruce’s discoverer, geologist Leif Kullman, named the tree after his dead dog. Image: Copyright Leif Kullman.