Great Basin Bristlecone Pine
Scientific Name: Pinus longaeva
Description: Great Basin bristlecone pines have one or many trunks. At low elevations, the trees grow straight, but at high elevations, the trunks become twisted. The root system is very shallow to allow maximum water uptake in arid environments. The female pine cones are dark purple in color and have bristle-like prickles on the scales, hence the tree’s name.
Size: At low elevations, bristlecone pines grow to 60 feet tall and 5 feet in diameter. Bristlecone pines at higher elevations may be half this height.
Typical Lifespan: The bristlecone pine is the longest lived species in the world—a few are known to have lived for over 5,000 years! However, growth is extremely slow. A 40 year old bristlecone pine may not reach 6 inches. In harsh conditions, bristlecone pines stop growing in height, but their trunk diameter continues to increase throughout their lives.
Habitat: Great Basin bristlecone pines are well-adapted to high elevation habitats in areas with rocky soil, low rainfall, and long winters. At high elevations, there are fewer insect pests and disease-causing fungi, so living high in the mountains may contribute to the pines’ long lifespan.
Range: Found in California, Nevada, and Utah across a range of altitudes. At higher elevations, it can be found in pure stands.
Life History and Reproduction: The Great Basin bristlecone pine is a conifer, which means that it produces seeds in cones rather than in flowers. Pines are monoecious, meaning that each tree has both male and female pine cones. The male cones produce pollen and the female cones produce ovules which, when fertilized with pollen, become seeds. Pollination occurs by wind. Bristlecone pines produce seeds for thousands of years, but they produce fewer as they age.
Fun Fact: This species is highly drought tolerant. One tree was found with 35 year old pine needles (modified leaves) that were still functional and photosynthesizing, despite periods of drought. Compare that to how quickly a house plant dies if you forget to water it for a week!
Conservation Status: Because of its small, fragmented distribution, this species is considered to be vulnerable, although it does occur in protected areas. It is susceptible to disease and severe fires. Scientists are uncertain about what effects climate change may have on bristlecone pine.
United States Department of Agriculture Forest Service
The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species
The Ancient Bristlecone Pine