This Is the Oldest Tree in Europe

By Elizabeth Preston | May 23, 2018 10:20 pm

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This tree is not dead, despite appearances. It’s alive and happy, and it’s been clinging to this cliff in southern Italy since the eighth century A.D. Researchers invented a new dating method to figure out that the pine is the oldest known tree in Europe.

Gianluca Piovesan of Università della Tuscia in Italy and colleagues spent three years taking samples from trees to try to find some really old ones. On mountain cliffs within Pollino National Park, they found a few trees that seemed to be a thousand years old or more. The most elderly individual they discovered was a conifer called a Heldreich’s pine; the researchers nicknamed it Italus.

Italus‘s spiky, dead top part and the patchy green growth in its midsection are typical of very old conifers, the scientists write. Also typical is its hollow trunk, decayed with age. That makes it impossible to use a core sample to count the tree’s rings, all the way to its center, and find out how many years it’s lived.

Counting back to the innermost ring of Italus, the researchers got to the year 955. But they didn’t know how many rings were missing from the trunk’s hollow center. Italus is 160 centimeters in diameter, or about 5 feet and 3 inches. The hollow section is almost 48 centimeters (1.5 feet) wide. Since tree rings vary in thickness depending on growing conditions, though, the scientists couldn’t know exactly how many rings were missing.

They also took cores from some of Italus‘s roots, conveniently exposed by its precarious growth on the cliff face. The roots had grown at different points during the tree’s life. The researchers used radiocarbon dating to assign approximate ages to these root samples, then used overlap between the ring patterns in the roots and ring pattern in the trunk to puzzle together the whole chronology of the tree. Their new method showed that the tree’s oldest ring comes from 789 A.D., making the tree 1,230 years old this year.

Although Italus is ancient, it’s a whippersnapper compared to the oldest trees in the world. These are Great Basin bristlecone pines in California and Nevada, the oldest of which has been alive for more than 5,000 years.


Photo: Gianluca Piovesan

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  • Diana Welch

    What a great tree, they should take care of this millennium tree.

  • OWilson

    As a tree lover from way back I have planted trees wherever I could on my life’s journey through two continents.

    From pine and spruce in volunteer organized planting programs to my perennial favorite acer platenoides (Norway Maple) that thrives in cities, natures natural air pollution filter, and neighborhood air conditioner.

    It is not always possible, for obvious reasons, but I’d like to see folks, especially children urged to do the same, individually or in groups.

    I’d love to see something like this listed on the “Citizen Science” programs. Even in schools.

    The “Science Starter” projects encourage citizens to measure, count and monitor trees, even “March for Science” with “like minded people”, but no apparent urging to actually plant trees., The “activisim” seems aimed at politics, judging from their web sites, and the listed background of the organizers.

    Which is partly responsible for my skepticism of Citizen Science.

    So plant a tree and watch it grow, even from the comfort of a chair in a far off land. courtesy of Global Earth Street View. You’ll be doing your part to add a little biodiversity to your neighborhood.

    You’ll feel good, but like me, you may feel quite old when you see your sapling majestically spreading its canopy! :)

    • TLongmire

      You should grow a hybrid poplar! They grow extremely fast(up to 8 feet a year) and might fix nitrogen thru their leaves, which is pretty unique.

      • OWilson

        Depends on location. Poplars grow fast, but they have a relatively short lifespan, and in Toronto where I used to live, they don’t fare well in the high winds and ice storms that frequently occur in winter.

        As a result the beautiful tree lined streets in the residential neighborhoods, by attrition, consist mainly of of mature Maples.

        They are long living, disease hardy and colorful.

        Where I live now, I’m learning about the great variety of Palm trees that I never knew existed.

        For me, a happy and thriving tree is grown in it’s own preferred locality and soils.

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Inkfish

Like the wily and many-armed cephalopod, Inkfish reaches into the far corners of science news and brings you back surprises (and the occasional sea creature). The ink is virtual but the research is real.

About Elizabeth Preston

Elizabeth Preston is a science writer whose articles have appeared in publications including Slate, Nautilus, and National Geographic. She's also the former editor of the children's science magazine Muse, where she still writes in the voice of a know-it-all bovine. She lives in Massachusetts. Read more and see her other writing here.

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