California is home to many of the oldest iconic trees in the world. Many of these amazing California trees have been standing for centuries. From Methuselah, the oldest living tree in the world, to Grizzly Giant, the tallest tree in California, we will explore five of these incredible specimens and discover their remarkable stories. Let’s look together at the five oldest trees in California and the unique qualities that help them last.
First, let’s explore how we know the age of trees. Figuring this out is a science – literally! The science of tree-ring research and studying woody plants have been around since at least the early 1900s. Keep reading to learn more about how this science helps us determine the age of the oldest trees in California!
How Do You Learn the Age of a Tree?
By studying a tree’s growth rings, or layers of wood that form each year, we can learn the age of trees. Each ring has different characteristics and patterns, which allow us to put together an accurate timeline of its life. Studying the age of trees is part of the science of dendrology. Dendrochronology is the name for the tree-dating process.
Scientists collect tree samples by using a tool called an increment borer. This tool is inserted into the tree to collect a tube-shaped plug of wood as a sample to study. The rings found in the sample are compared to other samples and help scientists determine the tree’s age.
By taking a closer look at the oldest trees in California, we learn a lot about the history of our environment. So join us in discovering five of the oldest trees in California and their remarkable stories!
The oldest tree in California is a Great Basin bristlecone pine in Inyo National Forest. It is estimated to be over 4,800 years old and is likely the oldest living tree in the world. This tree, called Methuselah, was discovered in 1957 by Dr. Edmund Schulman. In addition to its founder, many researchers are impressed by Methuselah’s ability to survive harsh weather, earthquakes, and even some wildfires over its long lifespan.
This bristlecone pine tree has unique qualities that help it survive harsh conditions. Those qualities include:
- A shallow root system
- Slow growth rate
- Antioxidants in its needles
- Dense wood that resists damage from insects and disease
- The capacity to store water in their roots better than many other trees
Methuselah’s location is unknown by the general public to protect it from harm. Yet, as one of the oldest trees in California, Methuselah is important for studying how trees adapt to our changing world over time.
2. The President
The oldest sequoia tree in California is The President, which lives in Sequoia National Park. The President is about 3200 years old and the oldest known sequoia tree in the world! Named after the 29th US President, Warren G. Harding, this ancient sequoia tree stands 247 feet high and 27 feet in diameter around its trunk.
This alarming size of this tree is part of why it lives so long. Here are some additional reasons that The President is one of the oldest trees in California:
- Unlike bristlecone pine trees, sequoia trees grow very quickly and get very large over their lifetime. Their impressive size helps sequoia trees stand firm against storms and other severe weather events.
- Sequoias have very thick bark with very little sap. These two qualities make these giant trees resistant to fire.
- Sequoia tree wood and bark contain a large number of compounds called tannins that help prevent the wood from decaying. These tannins also help sequoias resist damage from insects and disease.
- The surprisingly shallow roots of gigantic sequoia trees are able to absorb and store more water than some other types of trees.
These factors make The President one of the oldest trees in California and a symbol of resilience in nature.
3. Grizzly Giant
The Grizzly Giant is another giant sequoia tree, and it’s an impressive 2,995 years old. This sequoia is one of the oldest trees in California, located in Mariposa Grove of Yosemite National Park. Grizzly Giant is the 26th largest sequoia in the world, standing at 209 feet tall with a diameter around its base of 28 feet.
Like other sequoias, Grizzly Giant has fibrous and spongy protective bark about 2 feet thick! But that and more protective elements of this tree might not save it from the worst conditions. For example, Grizzly Giant had a close call with California wildfires in July 2022. Fortunately, it survived after the National Park Service doused the tree with water from sprinklers until the fire was no longer a threat.
Thankfully, the Grizzly Giant tree still lives on and is one of Yosemite’s most popular trees to visit among travelers worldwide.
There isn’t much left of another giant sequoia called Washington. However, it still stands as one of the oldest trees in California at over 2800 years old. Washington lives in the Giant Forest Grove of Sequoia National Park and survived a wildfire caused by lightning in 2003. Then, in 2005, this tree’s fire-damaged crown collapsed to the ground. Washington, named for the first US President George Washington, stands only 115 feet tall compared to its original height of 253.7 feet.
The fact that this damaged old tree is still alive and standing proudly among its massive peers serves as more proof of the sequoia’s mighty strength. But, unfortunately, Washington is also proof that even sequoia trees with thick, protective bark and solid foundations are destroyable in the right circumstances. This vulnerability is why these ancient trees deserve our best efforts to protect their environment.
5. General Sherman
Another standout among the oldest trees in California also lives in Sequoia National Park. Of course, we’re talking about General Sherman – a giant sequoia tree and the largest tree in the world! This ancient sequoia is about 2,200 years old and named after the American Civil War General William Tecumseh Sherman. Its massive size and incredible age make this giant tree another iconic symbol of California’s natural beauty.
General Sherman is 275 feet tall and about 36 feet around. It was discovered by explorer James Wolverton in 1879 and has been a popular tourist attraction ever since.
Like The President and other sequoia trees, General Sherman’s old age is due to its enormous size, thick bark, and shallow roots. This sequoia tree also has the same tannins, which help it resist decay from insects and disease.
General Sherman is such an important tree that aggressive wildfires in 2021 prompted national park officials to wrap the tree in a protective aluminum blanket. Thankfully, General Sherman survived, but the threat of future wildfires is still a significant concern for this and other California sequoia trees.
The Oldest Trees in California Are in Good Company!
The five oldest trees in California are all marvels of nature, each with its own unique story to tell about our past and present. But these five trees are only a small sampling of the ancient trees growing in this state. Other old California trees include:
- Chief Sequoyah
- Robert E. Lee
- Many unnamed sequoias!
The National Park Service uses defenses to protect trees in crisis, like fire-resistant blankets and sprinkler systems, in addition to ongoing conservation efforts.
Whether it’s Methuselah, the oldest living tree in the world, or The Grizzly Giant, the oldest tree in Yosemite, each of these ancient specimens is a reminder of how incredible nature can be. So take a moment to appreciate these magnificent trees and what they teach us about the strength of nature!
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- National Park Service, Available here: https://www.nps.gov/seki/learn/nature/sherman.htm
- National Park Service (1970) nps.gov/places/000/why-so-big-and-so-old.htm
- National Park Service (1970) nps.gov/yose/learn/nature/sequoia-research.htm#:~:text=Yosemite's famous Grizzly Giant in,plus or minus 250 years).