Even though Bristlecone Pine Trees occur in five other western states, the oldest examples of the species are found in the ancient forests located in the White Mountains of California. Needless to say, these trees are tenacious of life,
and grow at elevations between 10,000 and 11,000 feet (which is timberline in the White Mountains).
Adding to the difficulty and rigors of the high altitude conditions of cold, wind, and lack of moisture, the oldest trees end up living in outcrops of dolomite. Dolomite is an alkaline calcareous substrate of low nutrient content. These conditions, on the other hand, are somewhat compensated for in that the dolomite rock has a higher moisture content than the surrounding sandstone does.
Another benefit of dolomite is that it can reflect more sunlight than other rocks, and this contributes to a cooler and moister root zone. On your right, is an example of a gnarled, wind polished Bristlecone Pine. The wood is beautifully sculptured by the harsh environment of the White Mountains, and
even after dying, the structure will continue to be polished by the wind driven ice and sand. In the end, the remains will often take on the appearance of a ghostly apparition during a moon lite night.
Bristlecone pine needles can live from twenty to thirty years old. This reduces the amount of energy that is normally required for needle production each year by traditional pine trees, and the older needles also provide a stable photosynthetic environment to sustain life during years of severe stress. Another benefit to long lived needles is that the trees do not produce a lot of debris on the ground. This greatly reduces the risk of spreading fire after a lightning strike on a neighboring tree. Another key to longevity for the Bristlecone Pine is that invasion from bacteria, fungus and insects are unknown to the Bristlecone. This is because the trees have a dense, highly resinous wood that is impervious to the aforementioned problems. The White Mountains also have the driest air in the world and this helps keep the trees from rotting.
Bristlecone Pines grow very slowly, and the short 45 day growing season along with inhospitable conditions only add to the slow growth. It will take upwards of a hundred years to add just an inch of girth to these very special trees. This along with many other reasons is why care must be taken when visiting the groves. Stay on designated paths and avoid human contact with the trees. Climbing and or walking on the fragile root system can greatly reduce the life of these ancient trees.
Bristlecones can reach a height of 60 feet, but most never reach that lofty a stature. The Patriarch Tree which is located in the, (well you guessed it), the Patriarch Grove, is 36' 8" in girth. This makes it the most robust of the Bristlecones. This particular tree is relatively young at the age of 1,500 years, but it is older than the average Bristlecone Pine which clocks out at about 1,000 years. Very few trees have reached the 4,000 year mark, but the "Pine Alpha" is one of the exceptions. In 1957 it was renamed "Methuselah" after the oldest human ever recorded in the Bible. Methuselah (the tree) was found to be 4,723 years old and has the distinction of being the oldest known living thing on earth. The location is being held secret so that visitors (sad to say) will not be tempted to vandalize it.