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.

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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)

 

 

Junipers–Edible, Medicinal, Drinkable, Literary, and Magical!

Want a suggestion on how to make a Bloody Mary without alcohol?

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Bark of the Rocky Mountain Juniper

Juniperus is the largest of the genus in family Cupressaceae and consists of at least 55 species. Four species are mapped in City Park. Four species are also native to Colorado, three of which are marked in the park. The fourth, Juniperus communis is a low-spreading shrub. (Flora of Colorado, Ackerfield, 2015.)

The junipers, often mistakenly called cedars, were used by many Native American tribes. Rocky Mountain Juniper branches were used for purification, the red colored wood for lance shafts and bows. The Cheyenne were said to prize the wood for flutes. The boughs were used to line sweat lodges, and a few tribes bathed their horses in water steeped with juniper to give their coats a high sheen. It may also have been a dandruff deterrent.

The berries, which are actually the seed cones of the plant, could be dried and strung for necklaces. An ingenious way of producing a hole in the berry was to allow ants to eat out the sweet inner core. Smoked they turned black. Dyes can  be made from the roots and berries. One source mentions that the wood is used in making pencils.

Mythology says that juniper boughs have been used to ward off devils and witches, while dreaming of the berries had symbolic meaning. Giving berries as gifts conferred honor on the recipient.

Of course, there were numerous uses of the berries as both food and medicine, but not only in Native American cuisine. In Europe they are used to flavor German sauerkraut and Swedish pickles, as well as to cut the gaminess of venison and other meats. One of the best known uses for juniper berries is in making gin. Edible & Medicinal Plants of the Rockies (Kershaw, 2000) includes an easy recipe for making a Tricky Mary, a virgin Bloody Mary in which you allow juniper berries to flavor tomato juice.

Medicinal uses include the ubiquitous cure for a cold and other chest aliments, as a digestive aid, and for inflammation. According to Edible & Medicianal Plants of the Rockies a berry tea has been used to prevent pregnancy and also as a hunger suppressant. The berries were used by practitioners in the Middle Ages to help ward off Black Death. 

At the same time that many books and sites on the Internet provide recipe ideas for the berries, most also warn against large doses, especially for pregnant women. Edible and Medicinal Plants of the Rockies warns that over ingesting can result in convulsions and kidney failure while oil applied topically may case blistering. Even those who tout natural remedies  warn against eating the berries without knowing what you are doing.  At least one species is identified as a known toxin.

Rocky Mountain Juniper (Juniperus scopulorum) is native throughout Colorado other than the most eastern counties. Trees can grow even in Weld and Logan counties.  Rocky Mountain Juniper grow through most western states except California. One clue to its habitat range may be that it does not tolerate high humidity. This species was used in ways similar to the general discussion above.

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Rocky Mountain Juniper

The twigs and branches of Juniperus scopulorum are an important food source for the elk and deer of the region, while the berries are an important part of the diet of many smaller males and bird.

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Twigs and leaves of Rocky Mountain Juniper

 

The One-Seed Juniper is native to the American Southwest. Its range includes southwest Colorado (Flora of Colorado, Ackerfield, 2015). Its name is derived from the fact that its cones (berries) normally have but one seed each. The plant is common in the higher elevations of New Mexico and due to its long tap root, is able to survive in drier areas. The Santa Fe Botanic Gardens Newsletter says the ash from this tree is still used in Navajo wool dyeing as well as part of traditional Pueblo food recipes. The branches and smoke from burning juniper are also part of various ceremonies. Other sources mention that the bark was used to make mats and cloth.

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One-seed Juniper
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Leaves and cones of the One-seed Juniper

 

The Utah Juniper grows naturally in nine of the western states, including Colorado. Again, it is not native to Larimer County. Canyonlands National Parks says this “indomitable Juniper” can grow in “an environment of baking heat, bone-chilling cold, intense sunlight, little water and fierce winds.”

The Alpine Nature Center in Alpine, Utah, provides a chart of the differences between the Rocky Mountain Juniper and the Utah Juniper.

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Utah Juniper

Most of the distinguishing characteristics are related to color and shape. For instance, the bark of the Rocky Mountain juniper has a reddish hue while that of the Utah is more gray. This is barely discernible in the photos accompanying this post. The biggest difference might be that both male and female cones are born on the Utah Juniper while the Rocky Mountain junipers have distinct male and female trees. The aforementioned site claims a yeast in the berries is what is important to the gin making process. It also includes a recipe using juniper berries as the starter for a sourdough!

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The grayer bark of the Utah Juniper

 

I’ve been aware of a literary journal called Alligator Juniper for some time and always thought it was an odd name until I learned it was named after the Alligator Juniper tree.

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Alligator Juniper

Its habitat in the US includes only Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. One look at its bark, and it is easy to understand where it got its name.

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The patchy, scaly bark of the Alligator Juniper

This species has both male and female trees, with only the berries/cones on the female tree worth eating. The male pollen cones are the reason this tree is listed as a moderate allergen.

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Male pollen cones on the Alligator Juniper three

According to a post about the trees in Texas, this is a slow grower. One interesting study of the effects of climate change has shown that the Alligator Juniper has “crept” to higher elevations over the last fifty years.

The mentioned uses of the berries and other parts of the tree coincide with those of other junipers, although some reports for this specific species mention how strong the juniper taste is. For those of you interested in boutique spirits, at least one company is making a gin with Alligator Juniper berries known as Mt. Lemmon Gin. The Zuni use it as incense.

How to find the Junipers:

E60: Rocky Mountain Juniper (Juniperus scopulorumFind the tagged specimen on the other side of the fence in front of the miniature train station. It is across from Club Tico on City Park Drive. 

D199 One-seed Juniper (Juniperus monosperma). This tree is located along the east side of Sheldon Lake between the lake and the road, near the Douglas Fir and the frog statues. One author mentioned that One-seed Junipers look somewhat like Arborvitae, so look for a squat conifer.

C127 Utah Juniper (Juniperus osteosperma). This specimen is located between playing fields on the S side of City Park Drive as you head toward the Jackson Street exit. If you are driving east from the junipers mentioned above, cross Sheldon Drive and park about two-thirds of the way to the exit, near a group of trees that are encircled with bricks. You will need to walk as the tree is a short distance from the road. I was not able to locate the tag, but after reading that the Utah juniper produces both seed cones (berries) and pollen cones, it seemed obvious that this is the correct tree. 

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Look closely to see the brown pollen and the blue seed cones of the Utah Juniper

To find C157, Alligator Juniper (Juniperus deppeana), you could walk south from the Utah Juniper toward the corner of W. Mulberry and Jackson to a small clump of trees. You could also drive and park just S of the intersection of W. Magnolia and Jackson. This smaller conifer seems set off by itself. To find the tag, you need to walk into the branches.