Bristlecone Pines

Bristlecone Pine Life

The highest-dwelling bristlecone pines have been warmed by hundreds of thousands of mountain sunrises. Great Basin bristlecone pines in Nevada, possibly the longest-lived non-cloning living things on earth, have grown for 3,000-4,000 years. They grow at the top, razor edge of granite peaks where trees can almost no longer form roots.

Yet they are able to survive because of amazing adaptations to the weather and environment. Their roots are sectored. Since a large root feeds only part of a tree, if it fails, other parts of the tree can carry on. The tree needs only one strip of bark to connect with the root to carry water to the rest of the tree. The bark is dense and full of resin, which fights disease and insects. The tree grows slowly, not gambling on a few days of good weather. This slow growth contributes to the strong bark and roots, and all of the tree's adaptations.

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Bristlecone pine against the sky, taken by Sherry Smith, Pittock Mansion, Portland, OR, 4/2017

Just in the way that the bristlecone pine seems in harmony with its landscape, it actually becomes an echo of it. Its shape begins to take on the features of the landscape and weather, recording what has happened there. It is a living memory of its place. Its trunks twist according to the wind patterns. Its growth rings buried in its heart tell of difficult and easier winters. Some years there may not even be a growth ring at all.

A Quest to Find Bristlecone Pines

Great Basin National Park in Nevada has an inspiring grove of ancient bristlecone pines. Many years ago, when driving from Virginia to California, I stopped there to hike to see the trees. I highly recommend this. In April 2017, I was so excited to see one bristlecone pine in the dramatically opposite climate of Portland, OR! I'm not sure how the tree is thriving so well in the constant rain, but the trees are adaptable. I took these photos on the grounds of Pittock Mansion in NW Portland. The garden has a focused but really interesting collection of flowers and trees, including rhododendrons, a globe spruce, and various maples.

Bristlecone pine in Portland, taken by Sherry Smith, Pittock Mansion, Portland, OR, 4/2017