Scientific Name: Pinus longaeva
Known for: Being born when the Great Pyramid of Giza was built
Record broken: longest organism (non-clonal) alive
Plants, and trees in particular, do not live in the same timeframe that animals do. Due to their unique capability to continuously grow and regenerate (unlike animal that have a rather fixed body size and shape), plants can live a long, long time. Let’s look at a few examples;
Where are the old plants?
The desert-growing Welwitschia mirabilis, is found in the harsh Namib desert. It produces only two slow- (very slow-) growing leaves is known to frequently live more than a thousand years.
There are several very old oak trees (Quercus robur) across the world, some more than 1500 years old. The Granit Oak, in Bulgaria, has an estimated age of 1640 years old. When it was a young naïve seedling, Genghis Khan was invading Europe. Olive trees (Olea europaea) are also notable for living a long time. The Stara Maslina (literally “old olive tree”) is one of the oldest trees in Europe, with an estimated age of more than 2000 years old.
We need to move out of Europe to find even older tree. Kataragama Bodhiya Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi, in Sri Lanka, a sacred fig tree (Ficus religiosa), is the oldest planted tree in the world, with a respectable age of 2307 years. The oldest tree in Africa was the Panke Baobab (Adansonia digitata), with an age of 2419 years.
But this still does not beat today’s plant record. The longest non-clonal living single organism on Earth is a Bristlecone pine tree (Pinus longaeva) from the White Mountain from Eastern California, US, named Methuselah. Methuselah has an estimated age of 4,851-year-old, which means it was a sapling at the time the Great Pyramid of Giza was built. Until 1964, Methuselah had an even older sibling named Prometheus. Sadly, Prometheus was cut at the age of 4844 years-old, so would have been 4900 years-old in 2020… The exact location of Methuselah is kept secret.
What is the secret of tree longevity?
So what is the secret of trees longevity?
Several factors might be at play at the same time. First, trees (and plants in general), do not have a fixed final body plan. Tree are continuously growing through the decentralised actions of their 1000’s of meristems. This decentralised growth has two main advantages when it comes to longevity. First, trees can finely adapt to their local environment by favoring growing toward more favorable spatial environment. Second, if one part of the plant dies, the whole plant does not (unlike animals). The still-living meristems can continue to grow undisturbed for a long time. This redundancy in growth centers is central when it comes to longevity.
Second, a slow growth seems to be an important factor. Indeed, fast-growing trees can quickly reach non-sustainable heights. Indeed, above a certain height, that varies between species, hydraulic limitations appear and water cannot be transported to the top branches and leaves. Therefore, even if the final size of a tree is not predefined, physical laws might constrain it. Slow-growing trees can therefore live a longer time before meeting these limitations. In addition, slow growth usually also means slow metabolism therefore a lesser needs in resources. In the case of Methuselah, it also appears that its harsh environment (on top of a 3000m mountain) made it develop a thick skin. Methuselah grew slowly, patiently building a very hardwood and bark that protected it from repeated weather attacks and predators. Finally, the absence of fire, predation and, of course, lumberjacks is critical for a tree to reach a respectable age.
If you’d like to read more, there’s an article on the limit to tree longevity in Trends in Plant Science.
About Guillaume Lobet
Guillaume Lobet is an Assistant Professor, Forschungszentrum Jülich (IBG3, Agrosphere) and the Université catholique de Louvain (Earth and Life Institute). The aim of Guillaume’s research is to understand how various signals that carry information are interacting and being conveyed and integrated at the plant level and to amplify discrete physiological knowledge into functional plant processes. All of that using Functional Structural Plant Models. More about Guillaume’sresearch can be found at http://www.guillaumelobet.be