Bristlecone Pine–Cursed Tree or one That Changed History?

They are slow growers and may add as little as one 1/100 an inch of girth in a year

There are two species of bristlecone pine, both native to the southwestern United States. Pinus aristata, known as the Rocky Mountain bristlecone, hickory pine, or Colorado bristlecone, grows in the mountains of Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona.

Bristlecone
Bristlecone in City Park

Pinus longaeva, native to Utah, Nevada, and California, is called either Great Basin bristlecone or Intermountain bristlecone. Both species are long-lived, but the Intermountain Bristlecone holds the record as possibly the oldest living specimen on earth. At first glance the name bristlecone seems to be due to the small branches with their short, stiff leaves which cause them to look a bit like bottle brushes. A third moniker for the Colorado Bristlecone is foxtail pine due to branches resembling those of foxes.

Close up of a branch
Small branches looking somewhat like a bottle brush

Originally both species were classified as foxtail pines (Pinus balfouriana) but were reclassified in the 1800s and the two types of bristlecone were further distinguished in the the 1960s. The actual reason longaeva and aristata are called bristlecone pines is due to a bristle on the young cone.

Both species belong to the five-needled or white pine group of Pinus. In Colorado, bristlecones typically grow from an altitude of 8300 to 13000 feet (Ackerfield.**) At higher altitudes they are slow growers. According to one source  they may add as little as 1/100th of girth in a year. Often bristlecones grow with both limber pines and Engelmann spruce and sometimes near treeline with common juniper. Their seeds are tiny. Unlike most other pine species, they are winged. The trees do not produce seeds until they are between ten and forty years old, but may continue to reproduce throughout their extremely long lives. Most references mention these evergreens retain their needles for many years, with one article stating the needles may persist for decades. Often the needles are sprinkled with white resin spots, making the tree look like it has suffered a case of dandruff.

Bristlecone closeup
Close up of a branchlet of a bristlecone pine

When discussing edibility or medicinal use of the bristlecone, sources such as Edible & Medicinal Plants of the Rockies (Kershaw, Linda, 2000) and Medicinal Plants of the Mountain West (Moore, Michael, 2003) tend to lump them in with other five-needled pines. Both sources mention pine needle teas to enjoy or use for coughs and fevers. Both sources warn an excess of the tea may be detrimental, especially to pregnant women. Pines may also provide resin and be used for firewood, although in national parks, all bristlecone pines are protected.

Dirr and Warren* mention the bristlecone for the landscape, especially in dry areas with poor soil. They do need full sun and are usually sold as cultivars. In the yard they may have the look of whimsical holiday trees. At higher altitudes they have the appearance of large pieces of misplaced driftwood.

Although Pinus aristata has evolved numerous survival mechanisms, and the ability to adapt to hardships may be part of the secret to its longevity, climate change may be playing a part in new dangers to these old trees. In the early 2000s, bristlecone pines were documented to have died from mountain pine beetle infestations. White pine blister rust and dwarf mistletoe are also known to endanger these long-lived trees.

A Pinus longaeva specimen known as Prometheus was counted as nearing 4900 years when it was cut down by graduate student Don Currey. There are various stories about how exactly this tree was destroyed with the exact facts in dispute.  A full reckonning of the acrimony and confusion surrounding the Great Basin bristlecone pine designated as WPN-114 has many facets of today’s fights about climate change. To make the death of this tree a greater tragedy, when the pith of the tree was sent to the University of Arizona’s Laboratory of Tree Ring Research after Don Currey’s death, a more precise dating of the tree was determined. Now some estimate Prometheus may have been 5100 years old. 

In a piece developed for Radiolab, the hosts play a recording of Don Currey telling part of the story of WPN-114’s demise. The piece on Prometheus begins around 15:00 minutes. Although interesting, there appears to be at least one mistake in the update. Prometheus lived in the Snake Mountains in what is now Great Basin National Park, while the White Mountains and the disputed new oldest tree is in California. 

In 2014 the artist Jeff Weiss produced an exhibit, or as he calls it “a thing,” to mark the 50th anniversary of the cutting down of this great tree. (There is a film about this “thing” discussing the history of the tree and the art; the story starts around 9:48. Although the information is overall interesting, there are a lot of extraneous comments.)

Another Pinus longaeva, Methuselah, is a mere fifty years younger and still living. And a third, even older tree is rumored to have been located by the same man (Edmund Shulman) who found Methuselah, but this has not been verified. The tree is said to be living in an undisclosed area of the White Mountains and was 5067 years old in 2019. The oldest Rocky Mountain bristlecone, which is located in Colorado, is a mere 2436 (in 2020) years of age. 

According to the Gymnosperm Database, the largest specimen of Pinus aristata is located in New Mexico. The tree may be of dwarf stature at high elevations but may reach 40′ at lower altitudes. The 2018 champion tree in Colorado was found in the San Isabel forest and reached a height of 59′, about twenty feet higher than the next candidate. Lower altitude trees may not reach the great ages of their counterparts closer to treelike. They may become victims of heart-rot, decreasing their longevity to around 300 years.

Bristlecone bark
Bark of the Rocky Mountain Bristlecone Pine

The Rocky Mountain bristlecone’s relative, the Great Basin bristlecone pine has also played a part in calibrating carbon dating techniques and helped correct the historical record. This was done by overlapping tree ring patterns from living tree core samples and intact patterns of deadwood. This technique has enabled dendrochronologists, archeologists, and historians to examine climatic and other patterns over 10,000 years and has earned the Intermountain bristlecone pine the moniker the Tree that Rewrote History.  Here is a link to a  2009  poetic documentary, The Oldest Tree on Earth: The Curse of the Methuselah Tree. It includes a clip of Don Currey discussing the cutting of Prometheus and information from the person who claims to have found an even older specimen.

The curse of the bristlecones implies those who touch/cut the trees will have brief lives. Edmund Shulman who cored Methuselah in the 1950s died at 49, while a 32-year-old Forest Service employ who helped carry a slab of Prometheus off the mountain suffered  a heart attack on the way down and died. Currey, who one would assume would be the most cursed, died at 70, diminishing the likelihood of a curse in my mind. A highly recommended 2020 New Yorker article by Alex Ross, “The Past and Future of the Earth’s Oldest Trees,” discusses the curse, dendrochronology, the controversy over the bristlecone’s possible submission to climate change, and other aspects of this species.

bristlecone against the sky
Colorado Bristlecone pine hiding amongst the spruces.

To find C170 Pinus aristata in City Park, go to the intersection of Mulberry Street and Sheldon Drive. On the northeast corner is a small grove of trees including some spruce and deciduous trees. The shortest of the conifers should be the Colorado Bristlecone pine. Last I  looked, I did not see its tag. This tree was planted in 1978 when it had a diameter of eight inches.

 

 

 

 

*The Tree Book:Superior Selections for Landscapes, Streetscapes, and Gardens (Dirr, Michael and Warren, Keith, 2019)

**Flora of Colorado (Ackerfield, Jennifer, 2015)

 

 

Native Oaks of Colorado–the Ubiquitous and Dichotomous Gambel’s Oak

Quercus gambelii is a tree native to the Southwest, including Colorado.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Gambel oak leaves

On the Fort Collins City Park Self-guided tree tour two oaks are listed as native to Colorado, the bur and the Gambel. Jennifer Ackerfield, Flora of Colorado, 2015, lists the Gambel oak as well as two shrubby oaks with which it hybridizes as native to this state.  The USDA map shows the Gambel oak being native to states of the west and southwest, including  Colorado, Wyoming and South Dakota. The USDA map shows the Bur oak as native to most of the Canadian provinces and the eastern United States as well as states north, south, and east of Colorado, but not Colorado itself.

According to the passage in Western Explorers and other sources, Gambel oak may also be called scrub oak. Ackerman agrees Quercus gambelli Nutt. can be either shrubby or a small tree*, but other authors call different species of Quercus scrub oak. Some of these also may be native to the region, and all of them do appear to be mostly shrubs. To add to the confusion, other plant databases also call Gambel Oak Rocky Mountain White Oak or Utah White Oak. This short article says Gambel oaks are well-suited to Colorado by their smaller form as they require less water than many of their relatives. The smaller size also helps them withstand wind and snow. This species is common in Grand Canyon National Park.**

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Trunk of a Gambel Oak

Nearly all sources agree the wood from Gambel oak is mostly only good for fuel, although it might also have been used for equipment handles and furniture such as cradle.

Many concoctions of oaks in general (Medicinal Plants of the Mountain West, Michael Moore, 2003) and Gambel Oak in particular, have been used for gum inflammation, diarrhea and other intestinal conditions. Another use mentioned in the book is a chewed bolus of the leaves applied to insect bites. Other uses include as an analgesic for postpartum pain. Acorns have been eaten to increase sexual potency.

The acorns of this oak have very short or nearly nonexistent stems. The hairy cap covers less than half of the actual nut.*** Properly prepared acorn meal can be added to breads or soups to increase protein content. Some use acorns as a coffee substitute that does not contain caffeine. You can make your own or even buy it!

Although the Gambel Oak provides food and cover for wildlife such as deer and squirrels, it is considered poisonous for many domestic species, such as cattle and sheep. Gambel oak holds a similar dichotomous place in fire management. Under moderate conditions it may act as a firebreak, but in severe conditions it can be explosive and deadly.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Looking through the branches

Thomas Nuttall, one of the most famous naturalist of his time, named this species after a young naturalist. William Gambel was only 15 when he began working under Nuttall. Soon he ventured out to the Southwest and discovered a new species of oak near Santa Fe. Also on his journeys he found numerous new bird species, some of which also bear his name. Gambel named one of these, a woodpecker, after Nuttall. Eventually he returned to Philadelphia where he earned his medical degree and married a childhood friend. Shortly after this, he packed his bags and headed back to California for the gold rush and to set up his medical practice. During his trip, he contacted typhoid and died at age twenty-six.

To find the Gambel Oak (Quercus gambelii) specimen in City Park look for E59 on the map.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
The Gambel oak on the west side of the stone wall

This tree is near the intersection of City Park and Bryan Avenue’s NW corner in a small cluster of trees. You can locate this cluster with the Gambel in the middle on the west side of the stone wall located between the derelict miniature train station and the road.

*Ackerfield, Jennifer, Flora of Colorado, 2015 p. 486

**Little, Elbert National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Trees, Western Region, 1994 p.398

***Preston and Braham, North American Trees, 5th edition, 2002 p. 303

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Limber Pine—Branches Flexible Enough You can Tie them in Knots

The tree grows under conditions which may prove too harsh for other species.

Limber pine (Pinus flexilis) is another species which may be susceptible to damage from the pine beetle. Like most other trees, this species has a number of alternate names, including Rocky Mountain pine. This conifer is native to the western states as well as the two westernmost Canadian providences.

P3060011
Trunk of the limber pine

In Colorado, it is found from elevations of 5000′ to 12,000′.  It is also native to Utah where it is reported to grow from elevations of 4000′  to 11000′. Limber pine in North Dakota grow below 3000′. The groves of trees in North Dakota are thought to have arisen from seeds carried to the area by various Native Americans.

Limber pine survive stressors which may prove too harsh for other species. For instance, it is able to grow under dry conditions. The bendable property of its branches may allow it to survive in avalanche prone areas and this trait may help with slope stabilization as well as runoff control. Limber pines also have deep taproots, which help with resistance to wind. This species provide food for rodents and birds, such as the Clark’s Nutcracker. In turn the seeds are too large to be blown far by the wind; birds, then are a means of distribution. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Although lumber from Pinus flexilis is of little commercial value today, in the past it was used in mines, as railroad ties, and as firewood. In herbal medicine the resin may be used like that of other pines—as an antiseptic and to help with respiratory conditions. The seeds can also serve as a food source for humans.

Limber pines are a long-lived species, which may not reach maturity until 200 years. (North American Trees, Preston and Braham.) Some of the oldest trees may be well over 1500 years. Even though some members of this species grow on windy ridges causing  twisting and stunting, others may approach sixty feet in height.

P3060010
Leaves of the limber pine

Pinus flexilis belongs to the the group of pines with their needles in bundles of five. These leaves grow to be between 2.5 and 3.5 inches in length. The female cones are green prior to maturity and may grow as long as seven inches.

Like many conifers of the mountain west, the limber pine may be affected by climate change and damage by various pests, including mountain pine beetles; a fungus which causes white pine blister rust; and drawf mistletoe. The fungus spread from Asia to Europe in the 1860s. It made its appearance in Wyoming on limber pines in 1970 and by the late 1990s was found in Colorado as well.

To find the tagged LIMBER PINE (Pinus flexilis) in the arboretum, C182, start near the SE corner of Sheldon Drive and City Park. A row of trees, including ashes and conifers, runs more or less parallel to City Park Drive. The limber pine is in the middle of a small cluster of conifers. In the middle of an open area is a park bench which is west of this small grove of trees. Another landmark might be the exercise station near this same corner. You could walk from there along the row of trees to find the pine. 

This specimen was planted in 1981 when it had a diameter of 8″. In the flesh it does not appear quite as scraggly as it does in the winter photo.