by Jim Atwater
While attending this spring’s annual Landscape and Garden Design Show sponsored by the GardenScape Professionals Association I came away with a fresh appreciation of the ancient practice of bonsai as demonstrated by the International Bonsai Arboretum display. These miniature plants maintaining perfect harmony and shape while only a few feet in height make the concept of a Lilliputian world believable. Paradoxically, these artificially constrained plants can frequently outlive their normal-sized brethren through the interruption of their natural progression towards aging. While musing upon this subject I reflected about size and age in general, wondering just how large and how old can a woody organism get to be.
Legends abound of the former presence of massive or very old woody plants, but the searcher needs to be wary of the “Big Fish Story” bias. Reports based upon hearsay evidence from earlier eras have a way of taking on a mythic quality expanding exponentially into hyperbole over time. I’m going to mention a few that appear to be authentic, but will focus primarily on recent data where accuracy is verifiable. The largest trunk ever recorded was a Spanish sweet chestnut growing on the eastern slope of Mt. Etna in Sicily and a mature tree admired by Plato when he was living in nearby Syracuse some 2300 years ago. At 204’ in trunk circumference it provided the local villagers with an abundance of nuts for many centuries, but eventually succumbed from a loss of limbs cut to roast the nuts and from souvenir hunters. It was believed to be 3000 years old when it finally expired in the mid-19th century. The thickest tree in our present world is “El Gigante,” the pride of Mexico, a Montezuma cypress located at Tule in Oaxaca Province, southeast of Mexico City. As the fattest of all current trees it has a trunk circumference of 190’ along with a crown height of 140’.
Over the last 200 years most of the great old-growth forests of the world have been logged. Of the magnificent totaras (Podocarpus totara) and kauris (Agathis australis) of New Zealand and mountain ash of Australia (Eucalyptus regnans, claimed to have been 400’ in height) only a few fragments survive. During the early 20th century a tree near Melborne had a trunk circumference of 70’ and the stump of another nearby measured in at nearly 100’. Perhaps because western North America settlement came later some of the great trees on the west coast have been spared the loggers enthusiasm. In 1840 there were 2,250,000 acres of virgin coast redwoods along the California coast. By the 1930’s all but 4% were gone. Ninety thousand acres remain, thanks to the efforts of John Muir and his fellow conservationists, protected in state and national preserves. At one time the coast redwood may have exceeded 400’, not only the tallest but largest tree on earth. Now there remain only 115 reaching 350’ and 26 known to top 360’. However, not to overlook sheer size, the redwood’s cousin the giant sequoia, though 100’ shorter, is more massive in bulk and at 2500-3000 years, older than its 2000-year-old coastal cousins. The “Generals Sherman and Grant” with a body mass of 55,040 cubic feet and 47,950 cubic feet respectively far outweigh the largest know redwood at 36,890 cubic feet. Paradoxically there are taller sequoias and some others with greater trunks at ground level, and some probably older, but none can beat the “Generals” for total bulk and majesty.
Professor Steve Sillett of Humbolt State University has been studying redwoods, revolutionizing the perception that trees, regardless of size and age, have simple tops. They have discovered that as a redwood grows it loses its leader beginning a process of repeating itself anew called reiterations. Over the centuries as it continues to grow these satellites fuse, creating a canopy supporting a vast array of plants, insects and wildlife. A 2000-year-old tree in northern California’s Atlas Grove called “Iluvatar” has 134 such satellites (one 8½’ in diameter) and may be the most architecturally complex tree on the planet. A companion tree called “Stratosphere Giant” over 370’ tall and still growing is presently the world record holder for height. Recent studies have concluded that the redwood has the potential scientifically to reach a maximum height of 420’ and authorities believe some may have existed prior to 1850 when the great logging era began.
As for great age, the sequoias and redwoods are very respectable, but not the champions in that category. Europe’s best contestant appears to be an English oak named “Justice” that grew in Westphalia, Germany, the remnants of which was measured in 1892 with a 41’ circumference and estimated age of 1200 years. Now, only an eerie shadow of its former grandeur remains. There is a massive cryptomeria growing on remote Yaku Island in Japan, “the biggest, oldest and grimmest” cedar in Asia and reported to be 2000 years old. There is a grove of 400 Lebanese cedars growing at 6000’ on Mt. Lebanon in the Middle East some 2500 years old and believed to be the source from which King Solomon built his fabled temple. We’ve already discussed the redwoods and sequoias at 2500 and 3000 years old respectively. But the championship for pure longevity belongs to the intermountain bristlecone pines growing at a 10,000 altitude in the White Mountains of southern California under the most stressful environmental conditions imaginable. As with the artificially repressed bonsai, stress, by slowing down the normal growing cycle in plants can add significantly to their age. The current champion is called the “Old Man” at 4600 years old located in Methuselah Walk overlooking the Owens Valley in southern California.
As to the exact location of the “Stratosphere Giant” and the “Old Man”, tree experts are not talking. They learned a lesson a number of years ago when a geography student, studying glaciation cycles by examining bristlecone pines with a borrowed tree borer which had snapped off, received a ranger’s permission to cut down the plant and save the instrument. The result was that he had destroyed through ignorance “the oldest single living organism ever known.” You can see a slice of the trunk with 4,844 rings in a gambling saloon the next time you are in Nevada.
Photos copyright Kimbery Burkard, 2009.