The oldest known living trees in the world are close to 5,000 years old. They have presided quietly over the rise and fall of civilizations. There is a power in longevity, a serenity attained only through the passing of time.
Old trees, though relatively few, are in our midst. We can visit them and feel reverent, connected to something larger and more enduring than our transient lives.
What is the oldest living tree in the world?
The oldest living tree on Earth is Pando.
Estimates of Pando’s age range from 14,000 to 80,000 years old, with some even suggesting a million years old.
Pando cannot be dated by dendrochronology, the study of counting rings per year as age because it is a clonal colony. Its root system is old, but new sucklings grow each year. Pando is a colony of 48,000 shimmering gold quaking aspen trees in the Fishlake National Forest in Utah. The wide range of age estimation pivots on whether Pando survived periods of glaciation in the area or not.
The oldest single living tree in the world is a Great Basin Bristlecone Pine dubbed Methusaleh after a Biblical character who lived to the age of 969. This bristlecone pine living in the White Mountain Range of eastern California in the United States was determined by core samples to be is 4,860 years old.
10 Oldest trees that have ever lived on Earth
#1 The oldest Great Basin Bristlecone Pines
The very oldest known trees are not majestic and stately as one might imagine, but are gnarled and twisted, appearing wizened and arthritic from weathering many, many harsh seasons.
Great Basin Bristlecone Pines, pinus longaeve, top the list for the oldest known species.
The Great Basin Bristlecone Pines can be found high in the mountain ranges of California and Nevada and in the forests and canyons of Utah. It only takes one look at a haggard old bristlecone pine with its dark green bottle brush pine needles to realize that resilience is the key its longevity .
Bristlecones, which typically do not grow any taller than fifty feet can be found on clifftops and in crevices of the rocky canyons of Utah where freezing winds and torrential hailstorms twist and batter their trunks and snap their limbs, where melting ice and pelting rains erode the gritty earth from beneath their clinging roots and hot dry summers frequently deny them nourishing water.
While a few monumental yew trees have been identified as being between four and five thousand years old, notably one in the UK, one in Iran and one in Turkey, none of these claims have been verified.
#2 The Gran Abuelo (Patagonia Cypress)
After the Great Basin Bristlecone Pine, a Patagonia Cypress, the Gran Abuelo, in the Alerce National Park in the Cordillera Pellado Mountain Range of southern Chile, clocks in at 3,650 years old this year (2021).
The Gran Abuleo is a truly monumental tree at nearly 200 feet tall with a perimeter of 36 feet. It is believed that the key to its longevity lies in its special resins that discourage decomposition. These cypresses, fitzroya cupressoidus, native to Argentina and Chile have been heavily timbered for construction wood and are now endangered .
#3 The Giant Sequoias of Sierra Nevada
Following the cypress come the Giant Sequoias, Sequoiadendron giganteum which can be found at altitudes between 5,000 and 7,000 feet in the Sierra Nevada Mountain range in California, USA.
These giant redwood conifers are the most massive trees on earth, reaching heights of 275 feet with a spread of 60 feet and they can survive over 3,000 years. The oldest living sequoias, some approaching 3,000 years can be found in Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks.
They are on the IUCN red list of endangered species due to over exploitation and changing fire management practices, though the recent spate of wildfires in the Sierra Nevadas may work in their favor, creating conditions for seedlings to emerge and saplings to grow .
#4 The Western Juniper of Sierra Nevada Mountains
The fourth known longest living species is the Western juniper, Juniperus occidentalis, a conifer widely found in dry, rocky terrain throughout the far western United States at altitudes from 2,600 to 9,800 feet.
Many species of birds feed on its cones and disperse the seeds. The Western Juniper can grow as a shrub or as a tree generally not exceeding 50 feet except in areas where it competes with taller trees for sunlight.
#5 The Bald Cypresses
The fifth oldest non-clonal trees in the world are the Bald cypresses, Taxodium distichum.
Bald cypresses over 2,000 years old are growing today in the swamps of the southeastern United States, the oldest one documented in 2018 as “at least 2,624 years old” .
Though some of the Black River swamps where they grow are protected, the entire watershed is not and much of the ancient forested wetlands remain vulnerable to water pollution, logging, development and rising sea levels.
The bald cypress is a large slow-growing deciduous conifer that has been found in a wide range of soil types: wet, salty, dry, or swampy. It grows to heights of 35 to 120 feet and has a trunk diameter of 3-6 feet. Its main trunk is often surrounded by cypress knees.
#6 The Rocky Mountain Bristlecone Pine from Colorado
The sixth oldest tree is a Rocky Mountain Bristlecone Pine, pinus aristata at 2,464 years old, growing in the southern Front Range of central Colorado .
The Rocky Mountain Bristlecone Pine is closely related to the Great Basin Bristlecone Pines. They just don’t live as long. Most of the Rocky Mountain Bristlecones live to around 1,500 years of age.
#7 The African Baobab
The seventh longest-living trees species if the African Baobab, Adonsia digitate, which thrive in the dry, hot savannas of sub-saharan Africa.
Baobabs are pachycauls, trees with a disproportionately thick trunk for their height. They can grow to a height of sixty feet or more, but the height is strictly dependent the availability of water.
It seems that the older baobabs are in trouble. A team of researchers reported in Nature magazine that some of the thirteen oldest baobabs had collapsed in the past dozen years, four of those nine being the largest known baobabs, and with no sign of disease.
The preliminary theory was that the trees, aged between 1,110 and 2,500 years, and some with trunks “as wide as a bus is long” may have fallen victim to climate change .
#8 Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi, a sacred fig tree of Sri Lanka
The eight oldest tree is Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi, a Ficus religiosa, a sacred fig tree 2,308 years old in the Mahamewna Gardens in Anuradhaoura, Sri Lanka, grown from a cutting of the original Bodhi tree under which the Buddha attained enlightenment.
The cutting was brought from India to Sri Lanka in the 3rd century BC by the daughter of Emperor Asoka, a Buddhist nun and was planted by the reigning king in 288 BC.
The sacred fig tree is a semi-deciduous tree, losing most of its foliage for a brief period. It can grow to one hundred feet with a trunk diameter of close to ten feet.
The average lifespan is between 900 and 1,500 years, though some reports indicate it can live over 3,000 years in its native habitat on the Indian subcontinent.
It can grow in temperatures from freezing to 35 degrees centigrade and though it prefers sandy, alluvial soil, it can thrive in a wide range of soils at altitudes between 35 and 5,000 feet.
It is not endangered. In fact, it is listed in the CABI invasive species compendium.
#9 The Coast Redwood in California
The ninth oldest tree, a Coast redwood, Sequoia sempervirens in northern California, was 2,200 years old when it died. This evergreen species, which grows in a forest that runs along the Pacific coasts of California and Oregon in the United States where it rains all year, includes some of the tallest trees on Earth.
The tallest known, named Hyperion, is 379 feet tall and has a diameter of over 29 feet.
As a species, they are not in danger, but the old trees definitely are, as less than four percent of the original ancient redwood forest remains .
These old forests are crucial habitat for many threatened and endangered species including Stellar’s Sea lions, plovers, spotted owls, the bald eagle, the brown pelican, marbled murrelets, steelhead trout and coho salmon .
#10 The Foxtail Pine in high Sierras
The tenth oldest tree is a Foxtail pine, Pinus balfouriana, a high-elevation pine, in the Sierra Nevada turns 2,111 this year (2021).
The Foxtail pine is closely related to the Great Basin and Rocky Mountain Bristlecone pines, but fewer have been found. It has only been found growing in the southern Klamath Mountains at 6,400 to 9,020 feet and in the Sierra Nevada Mountains around Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks at altitudes between 7,500 and 11,500 feet.
These pine trees are on the IUCN red list as “near threatened.” .
Honorable mention – special trees in the world
There are a few beloved venerable trees that may well be older than some found in the list above, but their ages cannot be verified.
Dendrochronology, that is dating the age of a tree based on counting its rings presuming the tree grew a new layer of bark each year has its limitations. Moisture, wind, soil, slope, temperature, heavy snow, fire and disease are all variables which affect tree growth, and it may be that the tree simply did not grow new bark in a given year.
Obtaining samples from the core of a live tree may risk the health of the tree. And in many cases, entire sections of the tree, the ones most suitable for obtaining an accurate count are missing.
Some old trees become hollow and some even subsequently regenerate and some trunks divide at the base and the tally of years simply becomes questionable.
The following trees and species abound in folklore and have such a majestic presence that they are worth visiting just knowing that they are very, very old. 1,500 years old or perhaps even thrice that!
The mighty El Tule in Mexico
El Tule, a swamp giant, Montezuma Cypress, taxodium mucronatum, near Oaxaca, Mexico is a colossal tree believed to be between 2,000 to 4,000 years old.
Its trunk divides to form flying buttress-like boughs supporting a crown of leaves that spreads more than 150 feet high in the air, 140 feet above a trunk so stout that its girth has been measured at 176 feet.
The Ancient Common Yew in North Wales
The Common Yew tree is widely considered one of Europe’s oldest trees and the Llangernyw Yew, Taxus baccata, growing in a churchyard in the village of Llangernyw, Conwy, North Wales holds a special place in the heart of the British as one of its fifty great trees.
A famous English botanist, David Bellamy certified the tree as between 4,000 and 5,000 years old.
Old Tijikko in Sweden
Old Tijikko is a 9,550 year old Norway spruce on Fulufjallet National Park in Sweden, which originally gained fame as the “world’s oldest tree” until it became understood that it is not an individual tree, a clonal tree that has regenerated new trunks, branches and roots.
The Cypress of Abarkuh
The Cypress of Abarkuh, Cupressus sempervirens, also called the Zoroastrian Sarv as legend reports that it was planted by Zoraster between 4,000 and 5,000 years ago, is a major tourist attraction and national natural monument protected by the Cultural Heritage Organization of Iran.
The Olive Tree of Vouves
And finally, Elia Vouvon, the Olive Tree of Vouves, Olea Europa, touted as the oldest olive tree in the world still producing, in this case much coveted olives, receives 20,000 visitors a year.
Scientists from the University of Crete, the island on which it lives, estimate that the tree is 4,000 years old. Olive trees, the tree of peace have many mythical associations, sacred to early people of the Near East, to the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans.
Olive trees in the Garden of Gethsemene and on the French Riviera are believed to be around 2,000 years old.
And many more…
There are other magnificent trees over 1,000 years old scattered about the planet: the Monkey Puzzles, the mighty Oaks, the Sweet Chestnut, the Lime, the Welwitschia, the Kauri, the Totara, the Antarctic Beech, the Cedar and the Ginkgo among them.
May your travels bless you with an opportunity to meditate in the commanding presence of an ancient tree.
What are the oldest tree species?
Fossilized records from prehistoric ages show that some species of trees have survived intact over millennia.
The Ginkgo has been found in rocks from the Permian age, 280 million years ago and the fossil species Ginkgo adiantoides, indistinguishable from the modern Ginkgo bilboas has been found in rocks from the Early Cretaceous period, some 140 to 100 million years ago.
Likewise, fossils of the Dawn Redwood, Metasequoia glyptostroboides, have been found from near the end of the Cretaceous period, over 150 million years ago.
Wood preserved in amber reveals that its chemical composition has not altered over millions of years.
Thought to be extinct, some Metasequoia trees were inadvertently discovered by a botanist in a remote valley in China in 1943 where the villagers built shrines beneath them and left offerings as story had it that tea made from its bark had revived those on the brink of death.
What is the longest known life span of trees?
The oldest tree of record was Prometheus, a Great Basin Bristlecone Pine which grew on Wheeler Peak in eastern Nevada.
It was at least 4,862 years old and possibly over 5,000 years old when it was cut down by a Park Ranger at the behest of a graduate student who had got his borer stuck in it in 1964.
Why do some trees live longer than others?
The world’s oldest trees are found in every climate, from temperate to blistering hot and humid to intensely cold and dry. What they do have in common is their ability to adapt to their environment, whether that means spreading their roots over rocks, growing props to anchor them against harsh winds, growing a dense bark or coiling low to the ground.
Secrets to long life of some tree species
Unlike most plants, bristlecone pines can thrive in alkaline dolomite and granite soils. A distinct advantage to their stark habitats is that they are not as susceptible to wildfires with such little ground vegetation nearby. Harsh winds often strip them of their bark and yet they can lose up to 90 percent of their bark but as long as there is still life in the branches, they will survive.
Oftentimes part of their extensive network of shallow roots is bared by steep granite cliffs eroding under them, yet the trees appear to compensate by stretching their limbs to maintain a balance.
They are dense trees, full of resin, which has antiseptic qualities preventing decay, help its tissues to retain water, and is exuded as a sealant over exposed branches . When the tree suffers an injury, resin gushes to close the wound and protect it from invading insects and fungal disease.
The bristlecone pine is engineered to retain moisture: the wax of its needles deters evaporation and the needles only replenish every twenty years. The durability of its wood is so exceptional that 7,000-year-old dead trees have been found intact.
The African baobab can also withstand losing its bark. Its bark is not stripped by scouring winds, but it is torn off regularly by the foraging animals of the savanna, including humans who have found a number of uses for it. Baobab simply grows new bark back.
The Patagonian cypress has the advantage of being among a select number of plants that can emerge from volcanic ash and thrive in its poorly drained soil . The Patagonian cypress is also a dense tree, packed with resin .
The giant sequoia shares the quality with the other conifers of storing resin. While the sequoias do live in areas lush with vegetation and subject to wildfires, like the redwoods their bark is thick, protecting the tree from both fire damage and insects. And their bark is rich in tannins, discouraging bacteria and fungi . Too, their size protects them from the buffeting of strong winds.
The Western Juniper has an interesting adaptive technique known as the krummholz formation. This tree lives where freezing winds slam against the mountain cliffs. In such a harsh environment, it continues maturing but with a wide trunk and densely knotted limbs growing in stunted and deformed shapes hugging the ground.
What has been the biggest threat to long living trees?
Deforestation has destroyed much of our old growth forest around the world and continues to threaten what remains.
The few remaining old trees identified in this article are in protected areas and conserving them has been the result of struggles by conservationists in many cases. Logging is typically carried out for selling timber or for the purpose of clearing the land for another use.
As our understanding of the interconnectedness of ecosystems has grown, we have come to realize the adverse effects on remaining trees of fragmenting forests. Similarly, we have come to realize the forestry practice of thinning trees was based on a misplaced presumption of competition between trees. The reality is coming to light that trees cooperate and need proximity to share nutrients and transmit messages.
A new threat has emerged in the form of climate change. Areas are repeatedly experiencing record storms and flooding, droughts and wildfires. While many trees have evolved to withstand drought and wildfires, there is a limit to their resistance. An unstoppable fire raging through an entire forest will not skip over even the hardiest of thick-barked fire-resistant trees.
As periods of drought become more frequent and longer, it becomes more likely that a tree will succumb to “hydraulic failure.” Short of death, a tree’s resin flow is reduced during a drought, lowering the tree’s defense ability. At the same time, the increase in temperatures is creating more favorable conditions for the widespread bark beetle to flourish. With a tree’s defenses lowered, the stage is set for an infestation.
While tree species have been known to slowly migrate as the climate has changed, we are in the midst of a radical climate change creating imbalances Nature does not have the time it needs to correct.
Why should old trees be protected?
#1 Regulating the rainfall impact and preventing soil erosion
Old trees have extensive root systems and often large canopies that can help regulate the flow of water and mitigate erosion.
A forest canopy intercepts rainfall and slows its fall to the ground so that the soil can absorb it, rather than simply being flooded. Tree roots hold the soil intact and create a buffer so that streams are channeled toward tributaries, mitigating rampant flooding and erosion.
Old urban trees not only intercept the impact of downpours through their large canopies, but they also manage the stormwater by absorbing water through their roots, slowing the runoff and erosion it would otherwise cause. Erosion from storm runoff deposits sediment in steams that can cause loss of fish habitat.
#2 Water filtration
Old trees provide vital water filtration services. These root systems not only regulate the flow of water, they also absorb and filter water, removing harmful contaminants.
Tree roots capture excess nutrients, such as nitrates and phosphates from fertilizer runoff, but also contaminants including metals, pesticides, solvents, oils and hydrocarbons from asphalt runoff.
Rather than polluting the soil and streams these pollutants nourish the growth of trees or simply remain safely stored in their wood .
#3 Habitats for birds and bats
Old trees develop cavities which provide habitat for denning, nesting and roosting. Many places do not have woodpeckers and time is an essential ingredient to create the basal hollows needed by many birds and bats.
In fact, the New South Wales Australia Scientific Committee identified the loss of hollow-bearing trees as a key threat, positing that “loss of habitat trees is the single greatest cause of biodiversity reduction in logged forests” .
#4 Biodiversity support
Old trees host biodiversity. Old trees often host aged communities of lichen and fungi which in turn have complex relationships with other microorganisms. These relationships are critical to maintaining ecological diversity of an area.
While counting the birds and bats dependent upon sequoia hollows for habitat, the researchers discovered two new species of fungus gnats reliant upon the sequoia’s fungus, underscoring their realization that there is much we don’t know and foolhardy to destroy a lifeform we may ultimately be dependent upon.
Planting replacement seedlings when a tree is timbered will not replace the biodiversity the old tree supported.
In fact, the authors of the Australian study referenced above noted that “the irreplaceable roles of old trees make them a keystone structure, a disproportionately important provider of resources crucial for other species” .
#5 Sources of nutrition
Older trees provide significantly more nectar and seeds than young trees and are quite important to fauna who rely upon them for their food sources.
In a US Forestry study of sequoias, the researchers found that a number of birds, including woodpeckers, nuthatches and swallows were observed only at legacy trees and there was twice as much foraging by all birds and animals at the older trees .
#6 Carbon dioxide sequestration
Older trees absorb more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Recent findings suggest that nearly 70 percent of the carbon stored in trees is accumulated in the last half of their lives .
Conversely, felling a tree releases their stored carbon dioxide to the atmosphere unless the wood where it is stored remains intact and is reused for long-life products like housing or furniture.
#7 Shade and cooling
Old trees can provide an abundance of shade. Trees provide shade for homes and businesses resulting in saved energy. They cool streets and sidewalks and they shade streams, benefitting aquatic habitat.
Trees also take up water from the soil which then evaporates through its leaves, providing natural “air conditioning.”
#8 Air pollution mitigation
Old trees clean the air. Trees perform air filtration services, removing pollutants like ozone, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide and carbon monoxide and particulate matter from the atmosphere.
The amount taken up is dependent upon leaf area, so obviously taller which often equates to older trees are the most effective filters . And conifers have been found to be particularly effective in trapping particulate matter .
# 9 Healing properties
Old trees may hold valuable healing remedies.
The Dawn redwoods contains a rich collection of medically significant compounds, some previously unknown to science.
The Metasequoia is being closely studied for the unique potential it holds: its molecular defense system has after all, resisted the attack of millions of generations of pathogens .
#10 Spirituality and tradition
Old trees hold spiritual significance for many. The list is long. Old trees evoke a reverence and appreciation for life.
The Bodhi tree is sacred not only to Buddhists, but to Hindus and Jainists as well.
The tall, slender Coast Redwoods of America’s Pacific Northwest were where creation began and guardians of the world for the Tolawa people.
#11 Ancient wisdom and communication
Old trees impart wisdom. It is well documented that trees act in concert to protect each other. An intact ecosystem benefits everyone. A striking example is the umbrella thorn Acacia trees in the African savannah.
When giraffes come through and begin munching their leaves, they emit bitter toxins to discourage the giraffes and simultaneously emit chemical signals to warn downwind trees of their approach so the trees can immediately release their toxins .
It is now well-documented that trees help each other by sharing nutrients, communicating through their roots and through fungal networks. New research also suggests that plants may communicate with each other using sound waves .
The wisdom imparted by an old tree just might help the young whippersnappers and an entire forest survive.
 https://www.giant-sequoia.com/about-sequoia-trees/about-sequoia-trees/  http://www.faculty.ucr.edu/~legneref/botany/gumresin.htm
 A 35 million-year-old fossil of Fitzroya foliage was found in northwest Tasmania https://conifersociety.org/conifers/fitzroya/
 https://d3n8a8pro7vhmx.cloudfront.net/ncec/pages/45/attachments/original/1422705680/NEFA_The_Importance_of_Old_Trees.pdf?1422705680, Dailan Pugh, 2014.
 https://d3n8a8pro7vhmx.cloudfront.net/ncec/pages/45/attachments/original/1422705680/NEFA_The_Importance_of_Old_Trees.pdf?1422705680, Dailan Pugh, 2014.
 Wohlleben, Peter, The Hidden Life of Trees, Greystone Books, Vancouver/Berkeley, 2018, p.13.
 Wohlleben, Peter, The Hidden Life of Trees, Greystone Books, Vancouver/Berkeley, 2018, p.29.