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  • Writer's pictureBrooke Bowen

Ancient Trees, Gardening on a Glacier, and Smarty Plants

Updated: Dec 2, 2020

"The true meaning of life is to plant trees, under whose shade you do not expect to sit."


1. Tenacious Old Timers

We live among organisms whose lifespans dwarf our own, each with its own unique mode of survival.

I recently read about a sparse, scraggly tree standing 16 feet tall on a mountainside in a remote Swedish forest. The tree is a Norway Spruce (Picea abies) known as Old Tjikko (named after the discovering geologist’s dog). It doesn’t look like much, (although every tree is a beauty to those of us fixated on flora). Why would anyone bother to highlight this singular tree in a large, remote, dense forest? Because this unassuming spruce is 9,550 years old. Old Tjikko has stepped into the contemporary spotlight, known now as the world’s oldest living tree.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Located in Fulufjället National Park, Old Tjikko has been alive almost twice as long as recorded human history. The spruce began its life as a humble shrub, sprouting shortly after the end of the last ice age and growing towards middle age while humans fumbled with the wheel and the advent of agriculture. Old Tjikko was going on his 5,000th birthday when the Great Pyramids of Giza were built, and nearing its ninth millenia when its motherland became a country in 1523.

But wait, hold up, not so fast. I won’t allow this Norway Spruce to usurp my beloved Bristlecone Pine (considered the oldest living tree before the discovery of Old Tjikko) without serious scrutiny. And much to my pleasure, there is an important distinction that allows both species to keep their places at the top, and even makes way for a third.

Old Tjikko is an individual clonal organism. The tree's unique DNA has been alive for 9,550 years, but not every part of the plant has lived as long. While the root system of this specific spruce is almost 10,000 years old, the trunks usually survive between 400-600 years and then fall away as a new clone tree resprouts from the base. This process of regeneration is referred to as vegetative cloning.

Photo by Leif Kullman

Another champion of longest-lived greenery is the Ancient Bristlecone Pine (Pinus longaeva), found between 5,600-11,200 ft in the mountains of Utah, Nevada, and Eastern California. The oldest recorded Bristlecone Pine still alive today is called Methuselah, a 4,850 year old beauty located in Inyo National Forest.

Photo by author

Although Old Tjikko has lived almost twice as long as this ancient Bristlecone Pine, there is an important distinction that allows for both ancient trees to claim “oldest” superlative. Methuselah, along with all other Bristlecone Pines, are non-clonal, meaning these trees are not genetic duplicates or newer sproutlings of an ancient root system; their trunk structures are as old as their roots. In Methuselah's case, it is correct to dubbed this tree as the oldest living non-clonal tree on Earth, while Old Tjikko can reign as our planet's oldest living individual clonal tree.

I’ve explored the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest and was mind-bogglingly the only person on the trail in mid-July 2019.

Getting a bit more terminologically technical, and venturing way further back on the time scale, we land at a stand of quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides) in central Utah estimated to be over 80,000 years old! Pando, or The Trembling Giant, is a grove of trunks that share identical DNA and one massive underground root system. Quaking aspens often reproduce by sending up sprouts from their roots, which form the trunks of new trees, known as clones. The original organism goes on living alongside the sprouts, and eventually those sprouts create additional clones, growing outwards into a forest of genetic identicals. Pando, the latin word for "I Spread", has expanded to include 40,000 trunks over 105 acres, making it the World's oldest living clonal colony.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Here's an interesting bit: while Pando has been cloning itself for 80,000 years, the oldest individual tree in the colony is only about 130 years old. Which tree, then, correctly claims the title for oldest? Take your pick. My guess is the oldest has yet to be noticed.


2. Plants in Space

For a short time in 2019, there were tiny green plants growing on the moon. They were the first of their kind to sprout in outer space.

There have been some successes (and incredible technological ingenuities) in growing plants within the International Space Station. To date, the ISS’s various “gardens” have successfully produced lettuce, cabbage, sunflowers, peas, mizuna mustard, kale, and zinnia flowers.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

It appears that NASA has a pretty good handle on growing greenery inside the International Space Station. But they’ve had a bit of success on the outside as well. An arctic algae, a species of Sphaerocystis, survived for 530 days on an exterior panel of the international space station. One article explains that "While space-borne, they withstood the vacuum, temperatures ranging from -20 °C at night to 47.2 °C during the day, plus perpetual ultraviolet radiation of a strength that would destroy most life on Earth if not filtered out by the atmosphere.”

The chief scientist for the International Space Station, Julie Robinson, explained that although NASA has spent years perfecting the thermo-stabilized scrambled egg and freeze-dried shrimp cocktail for astronauts on the International Space Station, these meals wouldn’t survive the long journey to another planet.

Where there’s a problem, there’s usually a plant with a solution. And in this case, the solution might be found in a surprising place - a place that is continuously covered in snow. In an Antarctic research base on a receding ice shelf in the South Atlantic Ocean, there is a greenhouse. The purpose of this greenhouse is to find a way to bring fresh produce to Mars. Where life seems unimaginable, plants find ways to flourish. Their adaptability (they have to be resilient since they can’t walk away from their problems), has been highlighted in a new way. The plants growing in Neumayer Station III, are done so aeroponically, which means “the plants are suspended and the roots are exposed to air below. Nutrients are delivered via a sprayed solution rather than soil.”

Here's a video from the European Space Agency explaining plant growth in space:

These techniques seem promising if we need our green friends as fuel to survive the journey to other planets. But there are serious physiological benefits the astronauts and scientists attribute to time spent with their plants when stuck in cold, unforgiving environments. While onboard the ISS in 2015, astronaut Mark Kelly (who’s now running for US senate this Nov) meticulously tended to a zinnia bloom, confirming that plants will be part of the crew, possibly for their beauty alone.

Credits: NASA/Scott Kelly


3. Plants are like People: An Intro

Plants see, smell, and feel. They understand and interact with their surroundings. They nurture their young. They make friendships and enjoy community. They remember. There is abundant scientific research to prove these statements, and yet they can be difficult to grasp because the methods plants use don’t line up with the ways we as humans experience the world. People seem to be unable to conceive of intelligences different from our own.

And yet they exist…

The plan is to write various installments on this theme, to investigate the numerous ways plants experience the world using human experience for comparison.

To kick off the exploration, a cool video on Talking Trees:


4. Bean Seed Time-Lapse Video

An extremely well-made video on plant movement:


5. Some Personal Bean Content

I started my first garden this May, which included a successful harvest of three types of beans: Yard Long Green Beans, ,Kentucky Wonder Pole Beans, and Tendergreen Bush Beans. All of these did extremely well in the blazing full sun of coastal LA. Here’s a cool photo of the various stages of a tendergreen bush bean seed drying out.

I split one of the less desiccated seeds in half and felt that magical flutter upon seeing two tiny pre-leaves (cotyledons) bundled neatly in place, ready when the right moment arises.

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