There’s no single, agreed-upon way of ranking the ‘world’s oldest tree’. There’s individual plants whose rings are counted or radiocarbon dated to determine age—when these rings are intact, this gets pretty accurate. There’s estimated ages for trees, based on height, girth and growth rate, when the oldest wood or the trunk’s centre has rotten away far too much for accurate count. And finally, there’s clonal colonies, where a single tree is a genetic clone of a larger organism. Born vegetatively as an offshoot, the individual trunk can be quite young. However, the larger colony organism itself, especially the roots, can be thousands of years old.
In this photo essay, we take a look at some of the world’s oldest living trees across all three categories:
Where: Fishlake National Forest, Utah, USA
Pando is a single male quaking aspen with 47,000 trees in its clonal colony. It is between 80,000–1,000,000 years old, and covers over 100 acres of forest land. One of the oldest, largest and heaviest living organisms in the world, it has been alive at least since the time modern humans started spreading to Asia. Talk about dynasty!
Where: Fulufjället National Park, Dalarna, Sweden
You can probably tell that the tree looks a little too frail to withstand heavy testing—Old Tjikko’s age was determined by carbon dating from genetically-matched material found under the tree. While it was found that its trunk was only a few hundred years of age, the root system of this Norway Spruce is 9,561 years old. Old Tjikko has survived through layering and vegetative cloning, with its birth taking place before the invention of writing. It might have stiff competition someday, as the mountain area here has seen at least 20 other spruces over 8,000 years in age.
Where: Mountains, Inyo County, California, USA
The oldest non-clonal tree with a verified age, Methuselah is a 4,789-year-old Great Basin bristlecone pine tree in the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest. This particular species is known to have considerable longevity, and the White Mountains’ northern slopes house some of the oldest trees in the world. To prevent defacement, Methuselah’s exact location remains undisclosed by the US Forest Service.
JAYA SRI MAHA BODHI
Where: Mahamewna Gardens, Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka
This 2,305-year-old sacred fig is the oldest known cultivated tree in the world, and an important Buddhist pilgrimage site. Planted in 288BCE by King Devanampiya Tissa, it’s said to be the southern branch of the Sri Maha Bodhi tree in Bodh Gaya, India: the tree under which the Buddha gained Enlightenment. The original branch was brought to the island by Princess Sanghamitra, the daughter of Emperor Ashoka, some time in the third century BCE.
GREAT SUGI OF KAYANO, OR KAYANO OSUGI
Where: Yamanaka Onsen in Kaga, Ishikawa Prefecture, Japan
Cryptomeria (sugi) trees are known to live quite long—the 2,300-year-old Kayano Osugi is a sacred example. A Special Natural Monument under Japan’s Agency for Cultural Affairs, this Japanese cedar has seen JÅÂmon (a prolific hunter-gatherer culture from Japanese prehistory) period artifacts being unearthed nears its shrine. It’s also been visited by warriors of samurai and noble clans throughout history, as well as famous Emperor Hirohito.
We’ve had a lot of superlative trees throughout history, but most record-breakers are no more because of vandalism, apathy, and, well, the timber industry. While most of today’s oldest trees are now kept under watch in protected areas, all it takes is a small spark to destroy these gentle giants. When visiting such sites as tourists, we urge you to be cautious and respectful of these priceless specimens of our planet's natural history.