Bristlecone pine trees are among the oldest living organisms on Earth. The oldest bristlecone pine tree is 4,852 years old and is nicknamed “Methuselah.” It is 1,000 years older than the next oldest bristlecone pine. “Methuselah” lives in the mountains of eastern California.
The bristlecone pine is a medium-sized tree. Bristlecone pines grow 16 to 49 feet (5-15 m) tall with trunks 8 to 12 feet (2.5-3.6 m) around. Bristlecone pines have a gnarled and stunted appearance. The bristlecone pine’s reddish-brown bark has deep fissures. Deep bark fissures are often the sign of a tree’s age as the cambium layers die and slowly fall away. Bristlecone pines are kept alive by narrow strips of living tissue that connect the roots to live branches.
Bristlecone pines are found in harsh terrain. They prefer limestone-rich soil at high elevations where they compete with few other plants. Bristlecone pines live in large open stands, not close stands like other pines. Bristlecone pines are most often seen dotting a hill or mountainside; they do not form close canopies like other forest trees.
The needles or leaves of the bristlecone pine are deep green to blue-green and just 1 to 1 1⁄2 inches (2.5 to 4 cm) long. Bristlecone pine needles hang on the plant longer than the leaves of any other plant, as long as 45 years.
The seeds of the bristlecone pine are carried in cones. The cones mature at about 16 months old when they open and the seeds drop. A bird called Clark’s nutcracker also known as the woodpecker crow likes to pluck the seeds from dropped cones. Clark’s nutcracker eats bristlecone pine seeds and stores others. Stored seeds that Clark’s nutcracker does not eat often grow into new trees.
Bristlecone pines are native to the mountains of California, Nevada, and Utah. The botanical name of the bristlecone pine is Pinus longaeva.