Patriarchs of the forest
High in the cold, dry air of the White Mountains of California, just north of the infamous and inhospitable Death Valley, lives possibly the world’s oldest living1 organism. It’s a Bristlecone Pine tree, given the Biblical name of ‘Old Methuselah’ due to its estimated age (from counting the number of its tree rings) of 4,723 years.2 Amazingly, this tree would have been over 2,000 years old when Jesus Christ walked the Earth.
Photo by Ken Ham
‘The Dead Giant’, a sequoia in Yosemite National Park, California.
This tree’s ‘ring’ age is close to the Biblical date for the globe-covering and life-destroying Flood of Noah (Genesis 6–8) of around 4,500 years ago. There should be no trees aliveon Earth today which are older than the Flood. God’s judgment on sin was in the form of a global watery catastrophe which destroyed all air-breathing land vertebrates except for those whom God lovingly preserved on the Ark. A flood cataclysm of this magnitude would have laid down much of the massive thickness of sedimentary rock covering most of the Earth’s surface, and would have ensured that no trees alive at that time would have remained growing in place. So no tree growing today could have started growing from a seed in that spot more than about 4,500 years ago.
It is normally assumed that for each year of growth, one growth ring will be shown. This is generally true; however, it is a demonstrable fact that in years of good growth, i.e. moist, warm conditions, more than one growth ring can readily occur. Research has actually demonstrated this with Bristlecone Pine seedlings. By supplementing the ‘normal’ winter day length with a heat lamp, extra rings were able to be grown.3 In the presumed warm, moist and changing seasonal conditions in the first few centuries after Noah’s Flood, it is likely that there would have been quite a few such extra rings. This comfortably accounts for the few hundred years (less than 10%) difference between the oldest ‘real’ tree-ring results and the Biblical date of the Flood.
However, such an explanation would be strained if tree-rings on living trees gave dates of thousands of years more than this. Some scientists have now proposed a Bristlecone Pine chronology extending back more than 9,000 years from today.4 But this is by using a tree-ring dating method that links pieces of dead trees (even fossil fragments) with living ones. This ‘overlapping’ method seeks to cross-match the rings, using best-fit scenarios. These are fortified by statistical analysis to try to eliminate the subjectivity. But in the past, there has apparently been some difficulty obtaining access to the raw data to independently check these procedures. This has now been overcome, and further creationist research is underway.5 The bottom line is, however, that these apparent challenges do not arise from present-day, growing trees.
Are any living trees claimed to be substantially older than the Biblical date of the Flood? Indeed so—sometimes more than 10,000 years. But we shall discover that none of these were from counting the actual number of rings in a living tree.
Photo by John Woodmorappe
Oldest and Biggest?
The Bristlecone Pine. Using its growth rings as age indicators, it is perhaps the oldest living thing on Earth. At over 4,000 years old, these trees possibly started to grow just after the great Flood.
Sequoia trees, like the one pictured here are among the tallest living things on Earth today, growing to be hundreds of feet high. The name ‘sequoia’ is in honour of the Indian Cherokee nation leader Seqouyah (1776–1842), who invented a unique alphabet and taught his people to read and write. One of the first books in Cherokee was the Bible (1825).
Giant Sequoias generally have very shallow root systems of only about 3 m (10 ft) deep and are highly resistant to insect pests, disease and fire. The General Sherman tree (above) is the most massive one in the world. It contains enough timber to build 40 houses of five rooms each. Its outer bark is reported to be more than 1.3 m (4 ft) thick.
Tasmanian trees—30,000 years old?
The Huon Pine (Lagarostrobos franklinii) is a native conifer of Tasmania (Australia). In 1995, international headlines claimed that there could be Huon Pines as old as 30,000–40,000 years.6 Many people had the impression that this must refer to the number of rings, but that was not the case. How were the dates obtained? The trees in this particular stand are genetically identical to each other. That is, they have reproduced by vegetative reproduction from an original tree. This could mean that they have simply transplanted themselves, possibly from fallen branches, or new growth could be occurring from underground root systems. It is assumed that this reproductive process has been continuing for many millennia, hence the speculative ‘long ages’. In some cases, the carbon-14 (14C) dating method has been used on the root system and nearby fragments, and Huon Pine pollen has been found in the sedimentary layers of a nearby lake. We have often explained the assumptions behind 14C methods and the errors made in interpreting the data.
No individual Huon Pine has ever been dated, by straight-forward tree ring methods, as more than 3,500 years old.
The world’s oldest trees
Bristlecone Pines (Pinus longaeva and Pinus aristata) grow in very extreme, harsh conditions at altitudes of more than 3,000 m (10,000 ft). The highly resinous wood of these gnarled, ghostly-looking giants ensures they resist attacks from bacteria, fungi and insects. They are extremely slow growers. During their annual growing season of only about 45 days, they can add as little as 2.5 cm (1 in) to their girth every hundred years.7 While only reaching a maximum height of around 18 m (60 ft), the girth of the largest Bristlecone, named ‘Old Patriarch’, is a massive 11.2 m (36 ft 8 in).
The second-oldest known living tree, with a verified tree-ring age of 3,631 years, is an Alerce Tree from Chile, South America. Also known as the Patagonian Cypress, this species is believed to be related to North America’s giant redwoods (sequoias). Interestingly, Charles Darwin named it Fitzroya cupressoides in honour of Robert FitzRoy, captain of H.M.S. Beagle.8
The world’s tallest trees
The tallest known living tree is the Mendocino tree, a giant redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) found near Ukiah, California, USA. It has been officially measured at 112 m (367 ft 5 in). However, this was dwarfed by an Australian eucalypt (mountain ash), felled in Victoria, Australia, in 1872. It was believed to have been almost 150 m (492 ft) tall or as high as a 36-storey building, and remains the tallest ‘known’ tree to have ever lived.9
The location of many of these ‘prized’ trees (such as Old Methuselah or the Mendocino tree) is kept secret to deter vandals and souvenir hunters.10
The world’s largest trees
The official ‘living’ record for size is held by a giant sequoia, dubbed ‘General Sherman’, which can be found in California’s Sequoia National Park. It stands at 83.8 m (275 ft) and is 31.3 m (102 ft 8 in) around its base, and (with the possible exception of an underground fungus system11) is the largest single organism existing on Earth. Its total bulk is more than ten times that of a Blue Whale.
General Sherman was originally thought to be more than 6,000 years old, but this has now been revised to only 2,150 years. Nate Stephenson of the US Geological Survey said, ‘The new Sherman tree age estimate could still be off by centuries’. How, using a very simple method of ‘just counting tree rings’, can dates be subject to such dramatic alteration?
Most people presume that an ‘old’ tree’s age is derived from just counting the annual rings from a full-depth core sample. But this is hardly ever so. In the case of General Sherman, only foot-long samples were taken, and cross-matched with each other by looking for similar ‘indicator’ or distinct rings. Mathematical assumptions are then made to calculate the age of the tree by comparing measurements from other sequoia stumps.12,13
A uniformitarian (the present is the key to the past) approach is then applied when calculating dates (which doesn’t allow for differences in past climates which can affect growing seasons and even produce extra rings). This has been shown, in the case of General Sherman, to be very inaccurate. It would be more accurate if samples could be taken right through to the tree’s core or pith. But such procedures are very difficult on huge trees, as core samples are usually only pencil thin. This is because a full-depth procedure using large power equipment would involve significant damage to the tree. In short, longer dates have been assumed due to the enormous size of the tree.
Interestingly, Nate Stephenson also says, ‘Most of the largest sequoias are really just middle-aged. But they’re still growing like teenagers. Each year, it adds enough wood to make a tree one ft (30 cm) in diameter and more than 100 ft (30 m) tall’. He adds, ‘The relative youth of the world’s largest tree comes as something of a surprise’.12
Plant biologists agree, and even expect, that these vigorously-growing, magnificent ancient trees could continue to grow for many thousands of years into the future. And they would expect, therefore, that there is no reason why many among them could not have started their life many, many thousands of years ago. But there is no evidence that any of them predate the Flood. Even with the assumptive cross-matching method, the cut-off number seems to be around 4½ to 5 thousand rings. This is strongly consistent with expectations based on the Bible.
Why no older trees?
The fact that the magnificent patriarchs of the forest discussed here have stood silently growing for thousands of years gives glory to God, the Master Designer. It also suggests that they must be virtually impregnable to attack by natural pests, diseases, wildfires and the like. The dilemma for long-age believers, who scoff at the Bible’s account of a global Flood, is this: if there are trees around that can last that long, why not longer? Why are there none growing today which are, say, 7, 8 or 9 thousand years old by straight-forward tree-ring counting?
This is no mystery to the Bible believer, as it is firm evidence consistent with God’s Word. The Bible’s record of a global Flood is true and can be trusted.
Long-age plant claims wither
There have been many claims of plants other than trees being supposedly older than 10,000 years, including the King’s Holly of Tasmania (which was based on fossil remains near the plant) and a colony of Box Huckleberry (based on growth estimates over an area of 25 km2/10 miles2) in Pennsylvania, USA. The most notable claims, however, have been about the Creosote Bush (Larrea tridentate) of North America. It is a very common, unspectacular-looking shrub that thrives in the extreme, hot desert regions of both North and South America. The ‘granddaddy’ of them all is a plant named ‘King Clone’. Found in 1980, it was claimed to be 11,700 years old. But this date has been much revised, with scientists now speculating about an age of 7,500 years or less.1
In times of drought, the Creosote Bush looks more dead than alive. When there is plentiful water, it bursts to life with a foliage of waxy green leaves that ‘colours’ the desert. When crushed, its resins smell like creosote,2 hence its name.
Its growth cycle begins as a single plant. As the original shrub gets older, the stem and branches at its centre die and get covered with sand. However, the branches on the outward edges continue to grow to become the main plant. This process is repeated over and over again (for many years) as each new bush grows and dies, eventually forming rings of small creosote bushes stretching out over many hundreds of metres. This is a form of natural cloning.3
Dating is assumed by estimating the growth rate at which the rings of bushes increase. The debate regarding the age of King Clone demonstrates the inexactness of this uniformitarian approach; it is impossible to accurately determine a plant’s age based on current growth rates.
References and notes
References and notes
- We are here using the word ‘living’ in a biological sense. By Biblical usage, plants are not nephesh chayyah (נֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה = living creatures), hence their biological death does not have the same Biblical significance as that of those creatures that are (antelopes, for instance). Return to text.
- Discovery, 1 July 2002. Return to text.
- Variable production of growth rings in Bristlecone Pines, 26 June 2002. Return to text.
- Morris, H.M., The Biblical Basis for Modern science, Master Books, Green Forest, p. 418, 2002. Return to text.
- A paper is in preparation for the next International Conference on Creationism, as well as for submission to CMI’s refereed journal, Journal of Creation. Return to text.
- Living tree ‘8,000 older than Christ’(?), Creation 17(3):26, 1995. Return to text.
- Growth characteristics, 1 July 2002. Return to text.
- Among the oldest living beings, 2 July 2002. Return to text.
- Trees, 2 July 2002. Return to text.
- Apparently, one ancient Bristlecone was felled by a young student for research purposes. Return to text.
- Humungus fungus, www.earthsky.com/200l/es010202.html, 30 July 2002. Return to text.
- Largest tree a mere stripling, 11 December 2000. Return to text.
- A new age for the world’s largest tree, www.msnbc.com/news/5000327.asp?_nm=H23F, 12 December 2000. Return to text.