In their wooden structures, trees record a life history. Old trees incorporate experience into their shape. The wound of an axe, the scar of a lightning bolt, and the contact zone with a metal fence will all shape the future growth of a tree.
Just as you will accumulate stories, injuries, memories, and unique identity as you get older, so will a living plant. However, because they grow in a modular pattern you can read the story of a plant’s life in its branching pattern. For example, a tree that has had its top knocked off by a storm will demonstrate a different pattern to a tree that has lost its side branches to a woodcutter. The first tree will be broader, and the second tree will be taller and straighter.
Where there is a distinct seasonality to the weather, such as a monsoon or a snowy winter the stems and branches of the trees will have growth rings that count off the years. In tropical rainforests, trees generally do not have growth rings, and it is much harder to estimate their age.
The Bodhi Tree at Bodh Gaya, Bihar, is one of the oldest historically documented trees in the world. Along with the ancient Bodhi tree at Anaradhapura, Sri Lanka, which is at least 2,217 years of age, this tree has appeared in the ancient written records of Buddhist pilgrimages and kingdoms.
The ancient Mulberry tree at Joshimath, under which the Adi Shankaracharya meditated, is documened to be at least twelve hundred years old.The Kabir Vad Banyan in Gujarat, on a sand island in the Narmada River, may be the same individual banyan tree under which Alexander the Great’s army encamped 2300 years ago.
When you meet one of these trees, take a moment to think of all the history that this tree has survived. How old are you? Will this tree outlast you?
Globally, there are several superlatively old trees. Depending on how one defines an individual, the oldest tree could be
the bristlecone pines of the White Mountains of California (USA), with single stems showing 5,000 years of growth rings, are the oldest trees as defined by a single stems.
the Pando grove of clonal aspen poplars in Utah, USA, estimated to have been in place for 80,000 years. No individual stem is of this age, but as a single genetic individual, it has persisted as a forest.
the vegetatively resprouted forest of Huon Pines on Mt Reid in Western Tasmania, Australia, which may have resprouted in place for almost ten thousand years.
the Old Tjikko spruce tree in northern Sweden, which has grown anew from root stock repeatedly over the last 9,550 years.
the Meelup Malee, in southwestern Australia, which has also grown as a hybrid organism of clonal stems for perhaps the last 6,600 years.