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In search of the Old Ones: Where to find the world’s longest-lived trees

In search of the Old Ones

The famed tree of Sycamore Gap in England was cut down after growing there for around 200 years – but this is just rustle of a leaf compared to the lives of some woody plants. When it comes to trees, there are many ways of being old, and many ways of measuring and valuing oldness. The sycamore that stood in a gap in Hadrian’s Wall in Northumberland, England, was “only” about 200 years old when last month it met a violent end. But the grief about its felling speaks to longer time frames. The architectural location of the “Sycamore Gap tree” gave it resonance with the Roman period, while its cinematic appearance in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991) lent it associations with the medieval age. Because a “tree” is basically a plant filled with human meaning, any tree can potentially have timefulness beyond its organismal age. And through the nurturing of offshoots, a tree’s effective lifetime can be extended. Some still hope that the Northumbrian landmark will, like a coppiced tree, resprout from the stump. After all, the ficus (fig tree) by the main temple at Bodh Gaya, India, is not any older than the sycamore at Hadrian’s Wall, yet its germplasm – the seeds and other living genetic material – goes back many more centuries: the same sacred fig tended at the same holy site. Of some 140,000 species of woody plants on the planet, only about 25-30 can, without human assistance, produce specimens that reach the age of 1,000 years or older. Of those millennials, only about 10 can reach 2,000 years. And of those supermortals – all of them conifers – only three can produce trimillennials. Only one (to current knowledge) can produce quadrimillennials. In the absence of historical documentation, how do scientists measure organismal age? When it comes to the plants we call trees, there are three main techniques. One is exact; another is estimated to a standard margin of error; and one is guesstimated to varying percentages of probability. Original Article

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