Bristlecone Pine Journal

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Bristlecone Pine (Pinus longaeva)

On the arid, windswept mountaintops of the Great Basin in the western U.S. grows earth's oldest living inhabitant, the bristlecone pine. The bristlecone pine, named for the long hooked spike on the seeds of the cones, has adjusted to places that no other tree can inhabit, and in these harsh environments has flourished. The oldest trees are found in the White Mountains of California at elevations of 10,000-11,000 feet. Some of these trees are well over 1,000 years old.

The bristlecones manage to survive in poorly-nourished alkaline soils with a minimal amount of moisture and a 45 day growing season. This species has several strategies for its longevity. Needles can live 20-30 years, providing a stable photosynthetic capacity to sustain the tree over years of severe stress. Invasions from bacteria, fungus or insects are unknown to the bristlecone due to their dense, highly resinous wood. The dry air common in the subalpine region helps preserve the trees from rotting. Much of the bark and tissue that conducts water dies back after the tree is damaged by drought, fire or storms; this reduces the nutrients the tree has to supply. The remaining parts are very healthy; a 10 inch ribbon of bark can sustain a large crown. The trees put more energy into surviving than growing: they grow slowly, adding an inch of girth every 100 years, and reach 60 feet tall at the most.

Bristlecones are multi-trunked trees, gnarled and twisted by the elements. Each tree, from young seedling to ancient relic, has an individual character. As centuries pass and the trees are battered by the forces of nature, they become sandblasted into astonishingly beautiful shapes and forms. When all life in the tree ceases, the snag may stand for an additional 1,000 years or more, continuously polished by wind-driven ice and sand. The bristlecone is truly remarkable to live so fantastically long when given so little!

artwork by Camille Doucet © 2005 

text by Steve Sierigk

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