Podcast Episodes

Prometheus

In the far west, you can find one of the oldest living organisms in the world. A tree that can live for thousands of years due to its ability to survive whatever is thrown at it. But I’m not talking about California’s Giant Sequoias or the Great Redwoods. Fifty-six years ago, the oldest tree ever was found, containing nearly 5000 years of growth rings. It germinated before the Egyptian Pyramids were built. Unfortunately, nobody knew it was the oldest known tree until it was gone.

On this episode of the America’s National Parks Podcast, Great Basin National Park, the Bristlecone Pine, and how one man accidentally killed the oldest tree in the world.

Listen below:

Bristlecone pines are the oldest known living trees and for good reason. They have many tricks that help them survive, like growing in twisted, gnarly shapes at high altitude, and an adaptation called “sectored architecture.” Sectored architecture means that the tree has roots that feed only the part of the tree directly above them. If one root dies, only the section of the tree above it dies, and the rest of the tree keeps living. You will often see bristlecone pines at high elevations with only one or two living sections, stripes of bark growing on an otherwise skeletal body. They can endure quite a bit of torture.

But nearly 60 years ago, the oldest living bristlecone met an untimely end.

History and Story of the Bristlecone Pine :

Bristlecone pines in Great Basin National Park grow in isolated groves just below treeline. Conditions are harsh, with cold temperatures, a short growing season, and high winds. In these high-elevation environments, they grow very slowly. This slow growth makes their wood very dense and resistant to insects, fungi, rot, and erosion. Vegetation is very sparse, limiting the role of fire.

Bristlecone pines are often confused with limber pines. They can be found growing together at the same elevations. They are affected by the same erosional processes and may look very similar with dead and twisted wood exposed.

A bristlecone’s needles are about one inch long and grow in packets of five. The needles completely surround the branches. The tightly-bunched tufts of needles may extend back a foot or more along the branch, giving the branch the appearance of a bottle brush. The developing cones are a deep purple color, which helps to absorb heat, and mature after two years at which time they turn a brown color. The tree gets its name from the cones whose scales are each tipped with a claw-like bristle. They max out at around 20 feet tall.

In the summer of 1964, a geographer by the name of Donald R. Currey was researching ice age glaciology in the moraines of Wheeler Peak. He was granted permission from the United States Forest Service to take core samples from numerous bristlecone pines in an attempt to find the age of the glacial features those trees were growing on top of. Currey was studying the different widths of the rings inside these bristlecone pines, which were believed to be over 4,000 years old, to determine patterns of good and bad growing seasons in the past. Because of their old age, these trees act as climatic vaults, storing thousands of years of weather data within their rings. This method of research is valuable to the study of climate change.

Currey found a tree in this grove he believed to be well over 4,000 years old. It was known by local mountaineers as “Prometheus.” There are several accounts of how Prometheus met its end. Some say Currey’s increment borer, the tool used to take core samples, broke off in the tree. Others say he did not know how to core such a large tree, or that the borer was too short. Still, others say Currey felt he needed a full cross-section to better examine the rings of the tree. We may never know the true story of what happened to Prometheus, but we do know one thing for certain: Currey had permission from the Forest Service to have the tree cut down. Counting the rings later revealed that Prometheus contained 4,862 growth rings. Due to the harsh conditions, likely, a growth ring did not form every year. Therefore, Prometheus was estimated to be 4,900 years old, the oldest known tree of its time, and oldest tree ever dated — the runner-up being a bristlecone pine in the White Mountains of California. It was only 4,847 years old. It wasn’t until 2012 that an older tree was found – another bristlecone in the same area, proved to be 5,065 years old. There is a good chance there are older bristlecone pines that have not yet been dated.

According to ancient Greek myths, Prometheus was an immortal who brought fire, a symbol of knowledge, to humans. Prometheus the bristlecone pine also imparted a lot of knowledge to humans. The information gained by studying this significant tree added to the knowledge of carbon dating (which is valuable to archeologists and paleontologists) and climate data. Bristlecone pines are now protected on federal lands.

In the years since, the oldest known of the near prehistoric bristlecone pines was a tree nicknamed Methuselah, after the longest-lived person in the Bible. Methuselah is located in the White Mountains of California in a remote National Forest area between the Sierra Nevada range and the Nevada border.

Over 4,789 years old, the age of Methuselah was determined by the measurement of core samples taken in 1957, but discovered in this century. In 2013, another bristlecone pine in the area was discovered to be over 5,000 years old. Methuselah and its unnamed senior pine’s exact locations are kept a close secret in order to protect them. You can still visit the grove where Methuselah hides, but you’ll have to guess at which tree it is.

Great Basin National Park:

The stump of Prometheus is all that remains of the ancient tree within the grove. If you would like to travel through history by counting the rings of Prometheus, you can do so at the Great Basin Visitor Center.

Bristlecone pines in Great Basin National Park grow in isolated groves just below treeline. Conditions are harsh, with cold temperatures, a short growing season, and high winds. Bristlecone pines in these high-elevation environments grow very slowly, and in some years, don’t even add a ring of growth. This slow growth makes their wood very dense and resistant to insects, fungi, rot, and erosion. Vegetation is very sparse, limiting the role of fire. Bristlecone pine seeds are occasionally cached by birds at lower elevations. Bristlecone pines grow more rapidly in more “favorable” environments at lower elevations. They do not achieve their legendary age or fascinating twisted shapes.

Bristlecone pines are often confused with limber pines. They can be found growing together at the same elevations. They are affected by the same erosional processes and may look very similar with dead and twisted wood exposed.

A bristlecone’s needles are about one inch long and grow in packets of five. The needles completely surround the branches. The tightly-bunched tufts of needles may extend back a foot or more along the branch, giving the branch the appearance of a bottle brush. The developing cones are a deep purple color, which helps to absorb heat, and mature after two years at which time they turn a brown color. The tree gets its name from the cones whose scales are each tipped with a claw-like bristle.

Limber pine trees, on the other hand, have needles in packets of five that are 1 1/2 to 3 inches long and grow only towards the ends of the branches. Also, the cones of the limber pine do not have bristles.

The Wheeler Peak bristlecone pine grove, the most accessible grove in the park, is located on the northeast side of Wheeler Peak. It is unusual in that it grows on a glacial moraine consisting of quartzite boulders. Most groves grow on limestone or dolomite. The northeastern exposure of the Wheeler Peak grove is also unusual as most other groves have a generally southern or western exposure. The Wheeler Peak grove is reached by a 1.5 mile (3 miles round trip) trail from Wheeler Peak Campground. A short self-guided nature trail passes through a portion of the grove. During the summer, the park offers ranger-led interpretive walks in this grove.

The largest grove of bristlecone pines in the park is on Mt. Washington. Located in the west central portion of the park, access is difficult. No developed trails exist in the grove. Some sections of this grove have relatively tall (over 40 feet) bristlecone pines that resemble high-elevation spruce or limber pine more than the typical gnarled treeline bristlecone pines. Unlike the Wheeler Peak grove, the trees on Mt. Washington grow exclusively on limestone. In fact, nearby quartzite areas are notable for their lack of bristlecones.

The third grove in the park is near Eagle Peak (Peak 10,842) on the ridge between the Snake Creek and Baker Creek drainages. The terrain is steep, and access is difficult. These bristlecones also grow exclusively on limestone soils, while granitic soils in the area lack bristlecones.

From a 13,063-foot summit to the sage-covered foothills, Great Basin National Park is a place to sample the stunning diversity of the larger Great Basin region in Eastern Nevada. Some come for the majesty of Wheeler Peak or the ancient bristlecone pines which cling to her flanks. Others enjoy the mystery of Lehman Caves or the immensity of the stars in the darkest night skies.

Taking a drive along the Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive is a highlight of any visit to the Great Basin. A true mountain road, the scenic drive hugs the South Snake Range, slowly winding you to a point above all others, where vistas reach the horizon, and one is met with a pristine view of the rugged, harsh, yet surprisingly beautiful Great Basin Desert.

Starting at the Park boundary on Nevada Highway 488, the drive takes you on a paved 12 mile, out and back road to an elevation exceeding 10,000 feet above sea level, to the face of Wheeler Peak. Along this 12 mile road, you will gain over 4,000 feet in elevation and cross through numerous ecological zones, the equivalent of driving from Baker, Nevada, to the frozen Yukon, thousands of miles to the north. It is not uncommon to see mule deer, marmots, coyotes, jackrabbits, as you climb along the road.

Starting the drive by the Lehman Caves Visitor Center, you are already at an elevation of 7,000 feet above sea level. By the 11th mile, you have reached an altitude of 10,000 feet. Ecologically, you have entered a region more characteristic of a Rocky Mountain alpine forest than that of the Nevada desert. Each aspen grove you see can be a single, living organism. Aspens reproduce through cloning by sending runners out underground that become new trees. Because of this, it is common that entire hillsides of aspens are all a single, genetically identical tree.
By the time you reach the Summit Trailhead, you have completed your journey from the harsh sagebrush flats to the surprisingly lush and diverse sub-alpine forests of the Snake Range.


Connect & Subscribe

You can find America’s National Parks Podcast on FacebookInstagram and Twitter, and make sure to subscribe on Apple or wherever you get your podcasts, so you’ll never miss an episode.

Join the America’s National Parks Facebook Group here.

Pick up your own “From Sea to Shining Sea” gear in the America’s National Parks Teespring store.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 69434150_735914166836084_179055030496657408_n.jpg

For great American road trip destinations, give us a listen on the See America podcast, wherever you listen to this one. If you are interested in RV travel, find us at the RV Miles Podcast.

Today’s show was sponsored by L.L.Bean, follow the hashtag #BeanOutsider, and visit LLBean.com to find great gear for exploring the National Parks.

Scroll Up