An Illustrated Field Guide to 5 of the Oldest Living Things on the Planet
Your next birthday might have you feeling old, but it’s nothing compared to these senior citizens.
1. Tree Tumbo
Hangs out in: Coastal desert of Namibia and Angola
Age: ~1500 years
Claim to fame: Boasts a central spot on Namibia's coat of arms
Stranded in the thick of the desert, the tree tumbo looks like it’s been ravaged by the elements and left for dead. But don’t let the heap of tattered leaves fool you. The tumbo is a survivor.
The plant is a relic of the Jurassic period—and it ekes out its existence on a thin strip of land in Namibia and Angola where rainfall is less than 2 inches per year. But the tumbo deals with the arid climate like no other living plant: by using its two leaves to drink fog.
These appendages, which can grow to lengths of 20 feet, several times the size of the rest of the plant, are the only two it will have for its whole life. As the leaves grow, the desert wind whips them relentlessly, and they eventually become so frayed by sand and the plant’s own rough bark that they begin to look like a mass of tentacles. And that’s how the tumbo survives: The shredded strands are better for collecting condensation from the fog that forms just off shore, when warm air from the South Atlantic hits the icy cold current off the African coast. Meanwhile, the size of the tattered foliage helps conserve precious water by covering the hot sand and keeping the soil underneath cool and moist. The plant does have one other trick up its leaves: A long taproot helps pull extra water up from deep in the ground.
2. English Yew
Hangs out in: Europe, parts of the Middle East
Age: ~2000 years
Claim to fame: The wood of choice for Druids' magic wands
The oldest tree in the British Isles and possibly all of Europe, the yew is steeped in legend and myth. For the ancient Celts and Norse, it symbolized death and resurrection. Later, Christians buried yew branches with their dead and used the boughs in place of palms on Easter Sunday.
There’s a reason for the link between yews and resurrection. A typical tree dies when it’s outgrown itself and can no longer support its own weight. Not so with the yew. If the yew’s trunk starts to rot or the crown becomes too heavy for the tree, its high branches can grow downward to form a new trunk, putting down roots when they hit the ground. These branches can even grow down into the old trunk, forming a fresh trunk inside the hollow shell. As a result, figuring out a yew’s age is a botanist’s nightmare. After hundreds of years, the trunks look like a coniferous Escher drawing, and it’s almost impossible to tell the difference between up and down, old and new. Additionally, hollowing destroys the tree’s “rings,” so scientists have to rely instead on growth rates and archaeological work to figure out ages. Their best guesses put the oldest yews at 2,000 years or older.
3. Honey Mushroom
Hangs out in: Pacific Northwest
Age: ~2,400 years
Claim to fame: Edible and delicious, even centuries past its sell-by date!
Don't believe its sweet name—the honey mushroom is a vicious predator whose appetite knows no end. Though it starts life as a minute spore, the fungus grows quickly. Today, a single specimen in Oregon’s Malheur National Forest covers 3.4 square miles, or about 1600 football fields. You wouldn’t know from looking at it, though. The only signs of the humongous fungus aboveground are scattered clumps of mushrooms that sprout during the fall.
The honey mushroom’s incredible size, along with its longevity (four times that of most other fungi), comes at a serious cost to its neighbors. Rhizomorphs—black, rootlike organs—spread out from the fungal mass and, using a wicked combination of digestive enzymes and brute strength, force their way into the roots of surrounding trees. They leach water and carbohydrates away, killing the roots in the process. Once one food source is tapped, the rhizomorphs extend into new hunting ground, and the entire mass grows with them. Scarier still, there’s no shortage of food. Malheur National Forest covers 1.7 million acres, so the hungry mushroom has plenty of room to expand.
4. Box Huckleberry
Hangs out in: Pennsylvania
Age: ~8,000 years
Claim to fame: So beloved that papier-mâché huckleberries are dropped to ring in the New Year
The Box Huckleberry has the terrible luck of being both beautiful and rare—in the early 20th century, fewer than 100 colonies existed. Because the plant was attractive, prominent landscapers and horticulturists wanted to use it widely, but trimming wild specimens wasn’t great news for the limited population. So in 1919, botanists realized they had to save the huckleberry both from and for horticulturists—no small task.
As USDA botanist Frederick V. Coville was researching the plant, he noticed something odd. The entire colony was connected by the roots. It was one giant huckleberry! The plant was reproducing asexually by extending rhizomes—underground horizontal stems—that grew into clones of the original plant. Crazier still, the huckleberry was in a constant state of asexual reproduction. Coville and other scientists found that it grew about 6 inches a year laterally, meaning it would have taken some 2400 years to reach its 1200-foot length. An even bigger colony, 6500 feet long, was discovered a year later near Pennsylvania’s Juniata River; studies put it at an incredible 8000 years old, making the plant a contemporary of the Copper Age.
5. Bristlecone Pine
Hangs out in: California
Age: ~5000 years
Claim to fame: Makes like a bear and hibernates in bad times
In the brutal White Mountains of California, where the average elevation is 10,000 feet, there’s less than 12 inches of annual rainfall and very few nutrients in the limestone ground. Yet the bristlecone pine somehow manages to thrive. In fact, the worse the spot, the better for the plant. The seemingly lucky pines with better soil and more water grow quick and die young.
So, why do the trees with fewer resources live so much longer? Partially because they adopt a hibernation-like state. Some years, they don’t even add a ring of growth. And while these bristlecones look gnarled and nearly dead, what their dense, resinous bark lacks in beauty, it makes up for in practicality. The wood is highly resistant to disease and insects. Combined with a glacial pace of growth, these trees have lots of time to hang around.
The most senior pine, known as Methuselah, is a spry 4843 years young. More impressive, in 1972 scientists were astonished to discover a single, small pinecone in its branches and carefully harvested its 96 seeds. Despite Methuselah’s advanced age, all 96 grew into healthy trees, presumably with very, very long lives ahead of them.
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