Origin: Inyo Mountains, California
Improvement status: Wild
Seeds per packet: ~12
BOTANICAL SAMPLE - NOT GERMINATION TESTED
Life cycle: Perennial
High in the desert mountains of California, Nevada, and Utah, there live unassuming coniferous trees that are mind-bogglingly old. Among Great Basin bristlecone pines, the 1000-yr-old trees that cover the high-altitude southern slopes of many mountains across the region qualify as young whippersnappers compared with their elder brethren on the north-facing slopes. The oldest of these — a gnarled wonder in California's Inyo Mountains known as Methuselah — is believed to have sprouted from a single precious little seed in the year 2832 BCE, centuries before the Great Pyramid of Giza was built in Egypt. Since the tree's location is kept secret by the US Forest Service, and the exact date when it sprouted can never be known (though dendrochronologists seem pretty confident about its age based on tree ring studies), there will be no one else there to celebrate as this silent sentinel of history celebrates its 4,855th birthday in 2023.
Considered the oldest non-clonal organism in the world, it's actually quite plausible that some of its siblings or cousins are even older, since not every tree has been cored for testing, and slightly older trees (including one that finally died recently in Nevada) have been known to exist — due to their incredibly durable wood, some Great Basin bristlecones stand for thousands of years even after death. What's more, apparently the Methuselah Tree is far from the largest tree in its grove, so it would be hard to predict just by looking which trees might be older. Interestingly, California boasts the world's oldest tree, the tallest tree (a Coastal Redwood called Hyperion), and the largest/heaviest tree (a Giant Sequoia called General Sherman).
The key to the Great Basin bristlecone's longevity is its ability to survive even as large portions of its main trunk die. This is why so many of the oldest trees appear largely dead, except for a few limbs or even just one. They are susceptible to fire but grow at such high altitudes (just below the tree-line, beyond which trees simply can't grow) that there's little underbrush to serve as fuel for fires.
When we found a reliable source for these special seeds (Sheffield's Seed Company in Locke, NY), and after being assured that this species is neither endangered nor protected by law (other than those grown in protected parklands), we jumped at the chance to include them in our catalogue. These seeds come from California's Inyo Mountains, the very range where Methuselah grows.
GROWING NOTES: A very popular bonsai tree, Great Basin bristlecone pines can survive far from their high-desert habitat, including in wetter, lower-altitude regions. In such places, the trees will not develop the same gnarled appearance but may grow taller and straighter. They might also simply not thrive. We don't yet have a good sense of exactly what the limits are for this resilient tree — largely because quality seeds are seldom available — but we're hopeful that all of you out there will let us know how they do for you. From what we've read, they do not take well to very wet and humid environments, but perhaps there are ways to induce them to survive in such places (I'm imagining a sloping metal cone over the base of the plants that drains water away). The seeds generally need no special treatment to germinate properly, other than a good 24-hour soak in water before planting. If you don't live out west, and you're not willing to build a big metal cone around your trees, bonsai might be your best bet (though still, no doubt, a challenge). They are extremely slow-growing and do not appreciate any messing with their roots.