An exceptionally large individual growing in the Schulman Grove, White Mountains, California/Nevada border [C.J. Earle, 3-Nov-1984]. This tree is at least several thousand years old.


Exposed wood on a strip-bark tree, and its foliage (Wheeler Peak, Nevada) [C.J. Earle, 26-Sep-1996].
Pinus longaeva D.K. Bailey 1970

Common Names

Great Basin bristlecone pine (4), intermountain bristlecone pine (5).

Taxonomic notes

Syn: P. aristata Engelmann var. longaeva (D.K. Bailey) Little (5).


Trees to 16 m tall and 200 cm dbh. Crown rounded or irregular. Bark red-brown, fissured with thick, scaly, irregular, blocky ridges. Branches contorted, pendent; twigs pale red-brown, aging gray to yellow-gray, puberulent, young branches resembling long bottlebrushes because of persistent leaves, closely spaced needle whorls, and uniform needle insertion angles. Buds ovoid-acuminate, pale red-brown, ca. 1 cm long, resinous. Leaves mostly 5 per fascicle, upcurved, persisting 10-43 years, 15-35 × 0.8-1.2 mm, deep yellow-green, with few resin splotches but often scurfy with pale scales. Abaxial surface lacks median groove but has 2 subepidermal resin bands. Adaxial surface is conspicuously whitened with stomata. Margins are entire or remotely and finely serrulate distally, apex bluntly acute to short-acuminate; sheath ca. 1 cm, soon forming rosette, shed early. Pollen cones cylindro-ellipsoid, 7-10 mm long, purple-red. Seed cones mature in 2 years, shedding seeds and falling soon thereafter, spreading, symmetric, lance-cylindric with rounded base before opening, lance-cylindric to narrowly ovoid when open, 6-9.5 cm long, purple, aging red-brown, nearly sessile; apophyses much thickened, sharply keeled; umbo central, raised on low buttress, truncate to umbilicate, abruptly narrowed to slender but stiff, variable prickle 1-6 mm, resin exudate pale. Seeds ellipsoid-obovoid; body 5-8 mm, pale brown, mottled with dark red; wing 10-12 mm (5, 9).


US: California, Nevada & Utah. Subalpine and at the upper (rarely, lower) treeline; elevations 1700-3400 m (5). See also (10).

Big Tree

Height 14 m, crown spread 12 m, diameter 382 cm; in the White Mountains, Inyo National Forest, California (2).


The oldest known living specimen is the "Methuselah" tree, sampled by Schulman and Harlan in the White Mountains of CA, for which 4789 years are verified by crossdating. An age of 4,844 years was determined post-mortem (after being cut down) for specimen WPM-114 from Wheeler Peak, NV. The age is largely crossdated (6). Naturally, these ages underestimate the true ages of the respective trees (see Tree Age Determination for details), perhaps by hundreds of years in view of the fact that pith dates were not recovered for these trees. It seems likely that trees at least 5000 years old exist. They may never be identified, however, because exceedingly old bristlecones share with a few other ancient pines the ability to adopt a strip-bark habit. In this growth habit, bark dies back from most of the tree's circumference, leaving a strip of functional bark that usually runs up the protected leeward side of the trunk. The exposed dead wood then takes the brunt of windblown ice crystals and sand. These gradually wear away the exposed wood, and in time the tree rings that recorded the tree's youth may be entirely worn away by this process (Valmore C. LaMarche, 1985, pers. comm.).


Pinus longaeva is generally regarded as the longest-lived of all sexually reproducing, nonclonal species, with many individuals known to have ages exceeding 4000 years. Due to the resinous wood and extremely cold and arid habitat, decay of dead wood is extremely slow, and wood on the ground in some stands has ages exceeding 10,000 years. This has permitted building a continuous chronology of more than 8,000 years, which in turn has been used to calibrate the radiocarbon timescale. The species has been widely used in dendroclimatic reconstruction and in several classic studies of timberline ecology.

It is appropriate to note here that several of history's most noteworthy dendrochronologists have spent a large part of their lives studying this, the oldest and perhaps the hardiest of all the world's trees, in its remote mountain habitat:

  • Edmund Schulman (19xx-1958) is generally credited as the first person to discover the trees' great age, certainly the first to study the phenomenon (7).
  • C. Wesley Ferguson (19xx-1986?) worked closely with geochronologists to use ancient bristlecone wood to develop the radiocarbon timescale calibration. He also discovered and sampled many stands of very old trees.
  • Valmore C. LaMarche (19xx-1987) did pioneering work studying how bristlecones survive in an extraordinarily high, dry, cold environment, and went on to use the tree-ring record from bristlecones to provide estimates of climatic change over the past several thousand years (see the 'See also' section below).
  • Donald A. Graybill (19xx.-1990?) led research efforts to discover evidence of global warming in the bristlecone pine record (yes, there is such evidence). He also assembled a very extensive collection of bristlecone tree-ring data. [need more info].

Anyone desiring to learn more about this extraordinary tree would do well to read the work of these scientists. A bibliography of that work is available at the Bibliography of Dendrochronology.



Seen in White Mtns. of CA/NV, Bryce Canyon National Park (UT), Cedar Breaks National Monument (UT), and Great Basin National Park (NV). The best places to see bristlecones are in the Inyo National Forest on California, where the U.S. Forest Service maintains an interpretive trail through an exceptional bristlecone grove (with aweb site) (8); and in Great Basin National Park, where the National Park Service provides similar facilities.


White pine blister rust (Cronartium ribicola), an introduced fungal disease, has afflicted this and certain other white pines.

A wealth of information on this species is available at the Bristlecone Pine Home Page.


(1) van Gelderen et al. 1986.

(2) American Forests 1996.

(3) Bristlecone Pine Home Page.

(4) Lanner 1983.

(5) Robert Kral at the Flora of North America online.

(6) Brown 1996.

(7) Schulman 1958.

(8) Inyo National Forest: Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest.

(9) Ronald M. Lanner, e-mail communication, 20-Dec-1999.

(10) Robert S. Thompson, Katherine H. Anderson and Patrick J. Bartlein. 1999. Atlas of Relations Between Climatic Parameters and Distributions of Important Trees and Shrubs in North America. U.S. Geological Survey Professional Paper 1650 A&B. URL=, accessed 22-Jan-2000.

See also:

Bailey 1970.

R.S. Beasley and J. O. Klemmedson. 1980. Ecological relationships of bristlecone pine. American Midland Naturalist 104(2):242-252.

Michael P. Cohen. 1998. A garden of bristlecones. Reno, NV: University of Nevada Press.

Kristina F. Connor and Ronald M. Lanner. 1987. The architectural significance of interfoliar branches in Pinus subsection Balfourianae. Canadian Journal of Forest Research 17(3):269-272.

Kristina F. Connor and Ronald M. Lanner. 1991. Effects of tree age on pollen, seed, and seedling characteristics in Great Basin bristlecone pine. Botanical Gazette 152(1):107-113.

William B. Critchfield. 1977. Hybridization of foxtail and bristlecone pines. Madroño 24(4):193-212.

FEIS database.

Harold C. Fritts. 1969. Bristlecone pine in the White Mountains of California, growth and ring- width characteristics. Papers of the Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research No.4. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

Ronald D. Hiebert and J.L. Hamrick. 1984. An ecological study of bristlecone pine (Pinus longaeva) in Utah and eastern Nevada. Great Basin Naturalist 44(3):487-494.

Ronald D. Hiebert and J.L. Hamrick. 1983. Patterns and levels of genetic variation in Great Basin bristlecone pine, Pinus longaeva. Evolution 37(2):302-310.

Valmore C. LaMarche Jr. 1969. Environment in relation to age of bristlecone pines. Ecology 50(1):53-59.

Valmore C. LaMarche Jr. 1973. Holocene climatic variations inferred from tree line fluctuations in the White Mountains, California. Quaternary Research 3:632-660.

Valmore C. LaMarche Jr. 1963. Origin and geologic significance of buttress roots of bristlecone pines, White Mountains, California. Washington D.C.: U.S. Geological Survey Professional Paper 405-C.

Valmore C. LaMarche Jr. 1968. Rates of slope degradation as determined from botanical evidence, White Mountains, California. Washington D.C.: U.S. Geological Survey Professional Paper 352-I.

Valmore C. LaMarche Jr. 1978. Tree-ring evidence of past climatic variability. Nature 276:334-338.

Valmore C. LaMarche Jr.; D.A. Graybill,; Harold C. Fritts, and Martin R. Rose. 1984. Increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide: tree-ring evidence for growth enhancement in natural vegetation. Science 225:1019-1021.

Valmore C. LaMarche Jr. and T.P. Harlan. 1973. Accuracy of tree ring dating of bristlecone pine for calibration of the radiocarbon time scale. Journal of Geophysical Research 78:8849-8858.

Valmore C. LaMarche Jr. and Harold A. Mooney. 1967. Altithermal timberline advance in western United States. Nature 213:980-982.

Valmore C. LaMarche Jr. and Harold A. Mooney. 1972. Recent climatic change and development of the bristlecone pine (Pinus longaeva Bailey) krummholz zone, Mt. Washington, Nevada. Arctic and Alpine Research 4(1):61-72.

Ronald M. Lanner. 1988. Dependence of Great Basin bristlecone pine on Clark's nutcracker for regeneration at high elevations. Arctic and Alpine Research 20(3):358-362.

Robert L. Mathiasen and Frank G. Hawksworth. 1980. Taxonomy and effects of dwarf mistletoe on bristlecone pine on the San Francisco Peaks, Arizona. Research Paper RM-224. Fort Collins: USFS Rocky Mountain Forest and Range Experiment Station.

Harold A. Mooney, G. St. Andre and R.D. Wright. 1962. Alpine and subalpine vegetation patterns in the White Mountains of California. American Midland Naturalist 68(2):257-273.

[Pinus ] [ Pinaceae ] [ home]

This page is from the Gymnosperm Database
Edited by Christopher J. Earle
Last modified on 28-Jan-2000